I knew that there was a vast, epic, sprawling world of difference between a nicely pre-packaged pheasant neatly presented in a butcher’s window and the actual real-life bird but I did not appreciate the actual feathered physical reality of it until very recently. After contemplating the task I was about to undertake I steadied myself with a large glass of wine before reaching for my instruction manual – an excellent book originally released in the early 1960’s by an unwittingly hilarious fellow called W.M.W. Fowler. ‘Countryman’s Cooking’ is not just a superb cookbook but also an excellent read that harks back to a gentler age when the raging inferno of feminism was but a gentle glimmer and it was possible to write witticisms such as ‘having fortified your pasty maker with a couple of stiff gins, let her loose with some flour, lard, a bowl and a rolling pin’ without fear of scathing repercussions. Aside from such occasional, accidental and innocently archaic interludes, the book also has passages that are eerily prescient today with some prophetic ideas about the potential damage of intensive farming and the declining popularity of wild food, such as rabbit. But that was for another day, my immediate concern was where to begin with my pheasant, a bird Willie Fowler held in such high esteem that he devoted the entire first chapter to it.
My mind, beginning to feel the numbing effects of the alcohol, was developing a genteel confidence which was immediately shattered on reading the words ‘the pheasant is the most tedious of all birds to pluck’. I let out an audible sigh, reached again for the wine and carried on reading. ‘Holding the bird in the left hand begin plucking at the back of the neck about three inches above the shoulders and pull the feathers out one at a time.’ Although the evening was growing cold, this was not a job for the kitchen and so it was to the garden where, bird in left hand, I cautiously grasped a single feather and pulled. And nothing happened. So I pulled again a little harder this time and still failed to remove the tenacious little thing. My third attempt could have wrenched Excalibur from the stone and sure enough after offering brief resistance, the feather popped neatly out of the bird’s skin between my fingers. One down, a mere thousand, or so, to go. I made myself comfortable and carried on, stopping only occasionally to imbibe more wine. After half an hour I stopped to assess the progress I hadn’t made and found myself nodding in agreement with old Willie – this surely was a tedious process. My girlfriend emerged from the kitchen and looked at me sympathetically, and then at the growing pile of feathers between my feet which were making there way across the lawn at the merest hint of a breeze. ‘Do you think you should pluck into a bag?’ she asked. I nodded humbly by way of agreement and attempted apology.
After another ten minutes of plucking (into a bag) my patience began to wane and, having exposed enough of the breast, I picked a sharp knife from the kitchen and began to skin it instead. This proved a much faster and infinitely more satisfying approach and before long the bird was bereft of both feathers and skin apart from a small, shit-covered, clump around the parson’s nose which I was less keen on removing. This, I assumed, was what my guide euphemistically named the ‘vent’ and was where the gutting would begin, a process I wished to put off for as long as possible.
The head and neck were removed with ease using a pair of scissors and I was left looking for the crop, a ‘bag made of thin membrane situated at the base of the throat.’ It was then pointed out that that I should ‘try not to break it and you will save yourself the trouble of clearing up the resulting mess.’ Had I read down the paragraph a little earlier I would probably have taken more care not to puncture this small bag full of partially digested food that let off a deeply foul stench as it seeped over my fingers but I paid the price for my eagerness. After a few deep breaths and a healthy glug of wine I managed to fight back the rising tide of vomit that was gradually making its way up from my stomach thanks to the smell of rotting organic matter that was residing within the crop and was readying myself for the gutting.
My new best friend, Willie Fowler, devotes just two sentences to the evisceration procedure: ‘make a longitudinal cut from just below the breastbone to the vent. Insert the first and second fingers of the right hand and hook out the insides’, and I am sure that to the hardened countryman this is a simple process akin to putting on a tweed cap and wax jacket. But to a wet-behind-the-ears fledgling as myself this was not the easiest of matters to attend to. It required a firm hand and significant mental fortitude, neither of which I possess at the best of times, let alone a bottle of Rioja down. Under the guiding light of a torch held by my intrigued and attentive partner, I made the cut and peered into the belly of the beast trying to see a way in. there wasn’t one so I just rolled up the sleeve of my jacket and followed the simple instructions that had been lain out to me. In went the fingers and out flopped the guts, with little effort on my part. It was as if they were just waiting to make their escape. How such a small bird can have so many insides I’ll never know but there they were slopping into a plastic bag between my feet slowly leaching red onto their feathery bed.
And so it was over. I’d done it without squealing in horror or recoiling in fear or fainting or being sick quietly in the corner. Granted, my senses had been numbed by a significant quantity of wine but we now had in front of us an oven ready bird that just two hours previously (yes, it took that long) had been hanging in the garage complete with head, feathers and insides. I’d passed successfully through my own rite of passage, gone through a faintly traumatic liminal stage and emerged triumphant on the other side.
I highly recommend Countryman’s Cooking, an intelligent and thought provoking read, not to mention an excellent cookbook.
Click here to find out more about the book (Daily Telegraph article)
Or click here to purchase it (Amazon.co.uk)