As far as it is possible to follow the seasons today, in the winter my cooking instincts turn towards eating game. Growing up on a farm, there was lots of it hanging about. Literally. The birds, mainly pheasant, partridge and a few wood pigeon would be decked across the eaves of the shed, summoning up a gamey whiff before being plucked. Most game – particularly birds – does benefit from hanging around for a bit. It softens the flesh by allowing the lactic acid to break down some of the tougher fibres in the flesh. I recommend leaving your pheasant in a bowl in the back of the fridge for a week where they acquire a nicely intensified gaminess.
I didn’t really shoot. I tried a few times with my friend who had a shotgun. But I preferred to listen out for the crackle of the fieldfares descending on the hedgerows than exploding gunpowder. Not that I had a problem killing birds to eat. But as boys we deployed a far more subtle form of slaughter. We’d make our way with stealth up to the fir tree plantation just as the sun was going down. And using a catapult and ball bearings we’d knock the pheasant stone cold out of the lower branches where they’d be roosting for the night. I’m ashamed to say I was an instinctive poacher and quickly developed a clandestine arrangement with the local game dealer.
These days, a brace of pheasant or partridge is sufficient for me to create that ambiance of seasonal fruitfulness.
When you are ready to cook them, rub the skins of the birds with salt and let them air for a while. I grate orange zest and crush red peppercorns over them before covering them in streaky bacon. This helps to keep the birds moist while they roast. They don’t need much more than 30 mins. You can remove the bacon in the last 10 minutes to let the skin brown, and don’t forget to let the bird ‘rest’ before serving it.
But one of the best things about these winter birds is that they produce a nourishing stock full of natural antioxidants and vitamins, vital for keeping good health in these wintry months. Get rid of the skin and excess fat but tip the bones and carcasses from your plates back into a pot with plenty of bay leaves, an indulgent draft of wine, or, even better, sherry.
Don’t disturb the pot with a spoon but let the bits settle at the bottom of the pan and the liquid simmer clear. With the partridges, which are less fatty, this will produce a reasonably clear consommé which will be the talk of your table. If you are using pheasant, which have mostly been waddling and over-fed all year, if it doesn’t clarify it will taste just as good. After an hour or so, ladle the stock out on to a bowl of freshly washed and finely chopped winter greens, like kale, mustard or chard so that they gently cook in the heat of the stock as you take it to the table.