End Game: the Last Birds of the Season

Woodcut of a pheasant by Thomas Bewick, c 1797

Woodcut of a pheasant by Thomas Bewick, c 1797

The shooting season for both pheasant and partridge comes to an end this weekend so now is really the last chance to do something with them without having to rely on frozen birds. Obviously not everyone likes game or wants to eat it, so this post is just for those who do.

Game represents incredible value for money and in general provides very healthy eating with extremely lean meat. Of course, you want to watch your teeth with lead shot around and there is some evidence of low level uptake of lead from intensive eating of shot game, but you’d need to be gorging on it every day for many years for this to become medically significant.

In our local farmers’ market (Petersfield) you can usually buy five pheasant or partridge for ten pounds and the former will easily serve two people, or could even be stretched further. Supermarkets inevitably charge more, but most country people know where to buy at competitive prices. Even the cheapest supermarket chicken, produced in horrific conditions, will be significantly more expensive, and a lot less tasty or nutritious.

Fallen birds are almost a by-product of what is a fairly major rural industry – shooting. Any environmentally aware shoot is deeply conscious of the potential reputational damage cause by even the slightest suspicion that the bag might end up as landfill. So off to the dealer they go, regardless of price, and good cooks benefit thereby. If you want keen prices it’s hard to find much better value on the lean meat front. Those who shoot regularly, or are given game as presents by shooting connections, tend to complain about too much pheasant, but this is a bit of luxury.

On the assumption you’ll be having at least one more game meal this season the question is what to cook and how. You may be lucky and get pheasant that is still relatively tender, in which case roasted breast down is best, turned at the end with some streaky bacon to protect the breast, a splash of wine, butter and salt and pepper. Cooking times vary according to size and your taste for pinkness in a wide range from forty to fifty five minutes. If you’re following tradition then roast potatoes, bread sauce and fairly rich gravy are the standard accompaniments while a spicy red cabbage dish is delicious at this time of year.

Partridge, and you’ll be so lucky if you ever get the grey legged ones, actually benefit from being served with saffron mash, having a strong enough flavour to stand up to it. It’s simple to make. You need one large potato per person, peeled and cut up into chunks. These are then boiled until soft in salted water together with a goodish pinch of saffron, some proper olive oil, peeled garlic cloves and a bay leaf. Drain them and, if you can, separate any residual oil (a separating jug is a much better bet than trying to skim it off) . The potatoes will have picked up the flavours and colours of the ingredients, taking on a good yellow colour. Get rid of the garlic and bay leaf and mash up the potatoes with more oil and any you managed to save. You could have steamed white cabbage, red cabbage or cavolo nero as a vegetable and spiced and pickled pears would always be a treat with partridge.

If you reckon your pheasant are not going to be that tender (and at this time of year cock birds may not be) then one of the best ways of cooking them is a la Normande. In essence you brown your pheasant in butter, cook a couple of chopped shallots and add, season, and then deglaze the pan with either cider or calvados before adding in chunks or rings of apple browned in butter (Coxes are good), some more cider or good stock and bring to the bubble followed by about an hour in a medium oven or Aga. Adjust the seasoning, and then add some cream or, if you’re feeling rather Puritan, crème fraiche. This is good with baked potatoes or possibly even flat pasta such as tagliatelle. It’s rich enough that a simple salad afterwards will do, although those dedicated to the good things in life might well prefer to come to a sticky end with a golden syrup or Sussex Pond Pudding.

My assumption is that most people reading this post will be experienced cooks and able to work out precise quantities, times etc for themselves, but if anyone has any queries do email and I’ll come back with further information if necessary.


Grey partridge-image Norfolk Wildlife Trust, credit Martin Staff

Grey partridge-image Norfolk Wildlife Trust, credit Martin Staff

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