|Jul/Aug 2004 fiction|
We're having pheasant for lunch today. I've taken a couple out of the freezer. There's a cock and a hen, but they're not actually a brace. They've got different dates scrawled in indelible marker on their plastic wrappers.
Steve shot them last season, when he could still stand firm, his two feet square in the frostened mud, and swing his double-barrelled side-by-side upwards, shooting once, twice, rapidly, accurately, effectively. (Now he has difficulty aiming his percy at the porcelain, as his blood pressure drops with the emptying and he sways, misfires and wastes.)
Clean shot these birds seem to be—no black pocks of lead in the breasts, no toothprints. Maybe they tumbled free from the sky in their whirling rainbow death descent. Perhaps they ran jerking, jinking, wounded, until a well-trained kind-jawed black Labrador brought them stuttering, struggling to the feet of the master, to be finished off by a steel priest. (Or maybe that scrawny old beater-woman grabbed them first and bit clean through their necks with her customary bloodlust bravado.)
Hen pheasants are not as tasty, but they have a little more fat about them, which makes the flesh soft and succulent. Cock pheasants are scrawny, well hard. I must have ripped the courtship feathers from this one, torn away his colours, pulled out the shafts and barbs that made him male and proud, ripped with grabbing fists the downy softness of his undercoat, leaving him puckered, plucked, ridiculous in his pink nakedness.
And then cut off his head.
I think I can actually remember this bird. It says "v. high" on the wrapper. Head off, I would have stuck my ungloved inside its body, reaching for the entrails, unwinding its essence, wrapping it in old newspapers and shutting it in the bin. This bird had hung too long, gone past its flavour-date, tainted itself with itself inside itself. When I pulled out the crop, it was full of moving grains, plump cooked-rice-sized maggots feasting from within. It all adds to the flavour, the corpse-taint of putrefaction, as they say in the villages of Middle England.
There are eighteen pheasants taking shelter in the shadow of the hawthorn hedge at the far end of my garden. Seventeen poults and a full-grown hen huddle there beneath the massive leafless oak, hiding from the beaters and the guns on the other side of the wood. They are stupid; the season's over now. They should get away, far away, before next winter comes. I watch them from the kitchen window while I do the washing up.
How shall I cook them then, today—these soft and flaccid lumps of pink meat laying in my hands? The hen feels plump enough to roast, to baste itself. It should still retain plenty of flavour, despite its age.
Delia has a recipe (she would). You take that cock bird, slightly too high and scrawny, and casserole him very gently in stock and white wine with the lid on tight, soft bubbling, simmering. When it's almost done, you add fresh stalks of celery, glossy and ridged in their firm rigidity, and cook them very quickly so they don't have time to wilt. Then add cream and stir.
You can add the leaves of the celery, dipped in egg white and quickly fried for decoration, but I don't think that's really necessary.