After three gloriously culinary days in the Swedish capital I’m feeling invigorated and inspired with a burning desire to record each and every single detail, but before I launch into the most recent gastro-recollections there is the small matter of the newly plucked pheasant to deal with.
Where once we had a full-feathered bird, we now had something that resembled a recognisable foodstuff – a young and plump example of a bird that I’ve eaten occasionally but never truly appreciated until my hands on experience. The feathers were gone, the guts and head removed and now all that remained was to find some way to do justice to this magnificent creature. I turned to the champion off all things simple, tasty and British, a man who refuses to even grant a nod of recognition to the health police: Fergus Henderson. His book, ‘Nose to Tail Eating’ is a veritable manifesto of wholesome, and ever-so-slightly adventurous cuisine. It isn’t food that turns the stomach in the same vein as a globetrotting extreme eating adventure, more a celebration of food that has long been out of fashion but, thanks mainly to Henderson who is considered a revolutionary champion in the food world, is making a resurgent comeback. Perhaps it is a product of the current economic climate, but there seems to be an increasing interest in the ‘fifth quarter’ and those cuts that can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of the leaner parts of the animal. There is also a burgeoning realisation that it is just not viable, either economically or environmentally, to raise an animal only for the majority of the meat to end up on the scrap heap. So, with the freshest and most local meat I have ever had the simple pleasure in obtaining, I picked his book off the shelf and flicked to the section on ‘Birds and Game’.
Whilst roasting the bird, complete with a hefty amount of streaky bacon to prevent it from drying out (pheasants, like the majority of game, have little fat and so can quickly become frustratingly dry within minutes), was one option, I felt that this particular pheasant warranted more attention and thus we plumped for the ‘Pheasant and pig’s trotter pie with suet crust’. Although it might be worth noting that this is not food for those following a strict dietary regimen, I’d rather treat myself occasionally to something in this bracket and eat sensibly during the week rather than face eating a series of insipid ready meals, misleadingly marketed as ‘healthy choice’, or ‘low-fat’. But that’s just me.
This is slow food, not particularly challenging, labour intensive or time-consuming but the finest example of what Anthony Bourdain refers to as ‘culinary alchemy’ when something magical happens behind the oven door and the long slow cooking process renders the traditional peasants’ cuts tender and delicious. The sort of cooking that is perfect for the weekend and can be completed in three or four short bursts of kitchen based activity. First off, the trotters needed to cook in red wine and stock and a chunky mirepoix of vegetables (onion, carrot, celery, leek and garlic) complete with bay leaves and peppercorns (this combination is the cornerstone of slow food). Three hours was sufficient and once the cooking liquor had been strained and reserved the meat was stripped from the trotters and set aside. A hefty chunk of unsmoked bacon was then thinly sliced and fried in duck fat with four onions (thinly sliced) before being placed in a roasting dish with the trotter meat. Finally it was time for the glorious pheasant which had mellowed overnight but still retained that familiar gamey tang. After being portioned into four it was browned in the remaining duck fat then perched atop the fragrant pile of pork in the roaster. The cooking juice was poured over the top and the whole thing was covered in foil then placed into the oven to undergo its magical transformation. After filling the house with increasingly powerful and delicious smells (there is little that can beat the warming and homely intensity of meat cooking in wine and stock), it emerged from the oven to cool enough to strip the meat from the bones.
We strayed from the recipe slightly by using vegetable suet instead of the beef variety for the pastry but it made little difference and there was a frisson of excitement as the lid was rolled onto the pie dish, filled to the top with this unusual pheasant, porcine and wine combination. A little egg yolk brushed over the top completed the process and it went back into the oven for a final time.
Forty minutes later we had our pie: a golden crust like a quilted covering for the delights that lay beneath. A warm breath of enticing steam raced through the lid as the spoon cut through the pastry and I felt a pride in what had been created. It was the first time I’ve felt a profound and genuine connection with the food on my plate borne by the knowledge that I’d been involved in the entire field to fork process. My enthusiasm for such culinary adventures remains unbounded and I hope there will be many more to come. And the taste? Completely, utterly and totally delicious, made even more so by a vast spoonful of Heinz Baked Beanz and generous slop of tomato ketchup on the side.
For more on Fergus Henderson, click here (St. John Website)