The countryside resonates with the whirring wings and squawks of panicked pheasants, released into the surrounding country estate in time for the shooting season. Unpenned and unused to their relative freedom, they have no road sense at first, and many lie at the sides of roads, squashed, with a few sad tail feathers pointing to the sky. But not this one...this was still warm and in one piece. Almost perfect. So in keeping with my aims to source our meat locally (and you don't get more local than a mile down the road) I popped it in in my bike basket and covered it with my fleece. Waste not, want not. Although it is quite legal to pick them up when they have been hit by a vehicle, (unless you were driving it, in which case it is illegal to bag your victim) there are usually gamekeepers and estate workers going up and down the lanes. Best not to invite argument.
I hung the bird in the backyard, until some rustlings betrayed fat Clover, seen waddling down the garden path in hasty retreat with a long feather sticking from the side of her jaws. Into the kitchen it came...but how long to hang it for, in this unseasonably warm weather?
After much Googling, I rang a friend. We discussed 'ways with roadkill' until I had decided to prepare it after only one days hanging. Although the internet threw up some basics of plucking and drawing, I couldn't find a really detailed description. So I turned to Hugh, as he's known in our house. He is the chap who knows everything meatwise and 'The River Cottage Meat Book' gave me just what I wanted - step by step instructions clear enough for a novice pheasant plucker.
Day two and there was a bit of a pong in our tiny kitchen. I got a black bin liner, changed into a tee-shirt, put an audio book on the cassette player and began. Holding the legs firmly, I plucked small fingerfuls of neck feathers, working my way up the bird. The skin was quite thin and despite my gentleness, it tore in places. Round the wings was a bit tricky, and by the time I got to the business end I discovered the source of the strange aroma filtering through The Hovel. Holding my breath, I defeathered the rest of the bird, including the slimey bit at its bottom, and transported it to the kitchen to draw - or gut - it. By now I was feeling a bit wobbly, having never been quite so intimate with a prospective meal. Chopping the extremities off was ok, though I missed the crop and had to manually clean it out. I can only decribe the final gutting as - an experience. I tried to get round the inevitable by spooning the cavity out, but in the end, Hugh was right again, and I plunged my hand inside to get the final bits of glop out. It reeked. Really. Sickeningly. It was worse than dead badger. I rinsed the inside out, plucked out any remaining quills and put the kettle on. The whole process had taken about an hour and twenty minutes. Time for a cup of tea.
It was very small. Casserole seemed the best option. I rubbed it inside and out with cinnamon and chutney, and added about ten crushed juniper berries. It marinaded for 24 hours in the fridge. Then it went into the slow cooker on 'high' for a morning, with a couple of pints of water By now my nose was highly sensitive to any noisome odour and I could still detect a faint whiff of inner pheasant. I removed the meat from the main body and discarded the carcass, as gutty remnants still clung to the bones. Leaving the wings and legs to stew some more, I added two fat cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of dried mixed herbs, a handful of pumpkin seeds, two handfuls of unsalted cashew nuts, a slug of sweet chilli sauce, ditto of brown (HP) sauce, a beef stock cube, gravy granules to thicken, and a couple of bay leaves. Then I sauteed a small aubergine in sesame oil and a red onion in balsamic vinegar, which also went into the pot. Left all afternoon on a low setting, it gently simmered as I got on with making a bread dough. Instead of using sugar or honey in my warm water mix, I used black treacle, which gives the bread a rich, sweetish taste. As usual, I used flour from the mill down the road, FWP Matthews. When the loaf was baked, it was brushed with olive oil, giving it a softer crust. The final step was to remove the last few bones from the casserole, before serving.
It was, if I say so myself, a rather good supper. Even Clover got a small helping. Though by the cross look on her face, I think she would have preferred the whole bird, in its original state.