Tuesday, 21 December 2010


Having spent most of my working life in an office I feel I’m well equipped to offer up some insight into the worlds and minds of the people who work there. Take me, for example: a diffident school leaver at 16, sporting only the very basic of academic qualifications, entering office life without effort in an elevator fuelled by just the teeniest touch of nepotism. My weekly wages brought me the latest fashions, the fanciest make-up (I was never a Boots No. 17 girl), and later would pay for giddy nights out with friends of both sexes. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that (despite my expensive taste in cosmetics), I was unremarkable; my needs, wants and desires were as typical as the Alison, Sharon, Debbie or Karen that sat opposite me, twirling their hair with soon-to-be-engaged fingers and giggling at the office manager’s new tie. In office life you may occasionally come across an Alex who treads the Cumbrian hills at weekend or a Nigel who has joined a camera club and is eager to show you his prints or even a Celia who claims to have a season ticket for The Octagon but it is rare, extremely rare, to rub shoulder pads with anyone quite like John.

He must have been in his mid-fifties and I in my mid-thirties when we were introduced – he, as the new Area Sales Manager for the South West, and I, as one of his Sales Administrators.  His accent was thick and bristly as well it might be as he came from the deepest, darkest, most secretive part of Herefordshire where, I later found out through his poetry, he would take his pet bull terrier for walks on the grassy heaths. Yes that’s right, John was (indeed, still is) a poet. Not only did he pen his thoughts through rhyme and metre and then regularly regale them to me over the office telephone system, in addition he would share his tales of army life, his days as a woodwork teacher, his craft of wood turning and his love for Rock and Roll. John had found himself an audience, not a collective one whose appreciation would result in roisterous applause, nor a fawning one who would gasp and coo at all he told but a quiet, singular, respectful one and one who has remained so right up to this very day. In exchange for my pliant ears, John would drive up to Bolton bearing gifts. These were not flowers, potted plants or chocolates. No, his gifts held not the remotest resemblance to any token of gratitude that a Sales Representative might hand over to his office staff. And indeed for that I shall always be thankful for it was John, with his penchant for outlandish treats, who first introduced me to pheasant. Before I unfurl my musings on phasianus colchicus let me go over just some of the booty brought in by John and why I was such a deserving cause.
The first couple of years of the new millennium was a tumultuous time for me as it was during that period I left my first husband and took refuge at my mother’s house. The pending divorce brought with it an uncertain future and any glimpse I caught of it had me slinking for cover. And so I became the student I never was and studied nightly behind my teenage bedroom door; books and words becoming an anodyne to keep the pain at bay. Mum would cosset me with brews of camomile tea and we would lament over the shocking state of the male species. A divorcee of twenty years or more and a veteran man-hater, Mum was adequately qualified in offering an illuminating contribution to such discourse. It could only ever have aroused in her a deep suspicion of motive, then, when she learned the source of the gigantic bag of apples I heaved over the back step one evening after work, huffing and puffing like a weary coal merchant with a thunderous sack of coal. It is a well known fact that anyone suffering from melancholia, or indeed any other form of sickness, might benefit from a trip to the countryside, but if you can’t get to the bucolic idyll of your choice then why not let it in through your own back door? John had brought me a taste of rural Herefordshire in the form of a massive amount of the most rosy-smudged, cheek-twanging apples I’d ever seen or tasted. They tumbled out of Mum’s tiny fruit bowl, littered the worktop in a cheerful haze of green and pink, some rolled into the sink merrily while others fell to the floor with a bruising thud. I sat in my favourite dining room chair and watched as Mum trailed after the recalcitrant apples. Just at that moment, the back door opened and my youngest brother, Tom, emerged, his eyes stumbling over the landslide of rose and green fruit before him as he hunted for the right words: “What ...why ...where...have they come from?” Mum was speedy with a sarcastic retort as she glared over at me, her failing divorcee-in-training, “Oh these are just a few apples that a man at work has given Wendy,” and more damningly, “if you ask me he’s obsessed with her.” “Well” cautioned Tom “if his depth of obsession equals the amount of apples he has a problem; has he seen a psychiatrist?”
After the apples and my protracted consumption of them, John regularly supplied me with yet more rustic fare. I gladly became the recipient of a deep burgundy-hued loin of venison, whose length and breadth was the size of a generously proportioned Christmas log and served a dinner party for six effortlessly.  Shortly after that I was given cubes of healthy pink rabbit meat which I subsequently braised in cider with chunks of carrot and celery. The pheasant arrived later in the year on a freezing night in December and, although plucked and ready for the oven, this bird offered me the fiercest culinary challenge. I followed John’s gruffly given instructions to, “Roast it like a chicken, Rum*” and remembered his suggestion of “Smearing it with butter to help keep the meat moist”. My hands, greasy with butter, shoved the messy bird into the oven’s pre-heated cavity and there it roasted for ... err..., as long as it would take a chicken, of course. After well over an hour I lifted out the sizzling roaster and stifled a burgeoning hysteria as I began to wonder how this shrivelled body might feed four hungry mouths. What were once, presumably, the bird’s juices had become sticky deposits as black as tar and it soon became obvious that no amount of de-glazing the tin with wine would ever produce a pouring of gravy. “Find me your sharpest knife, Mum” I ordered as I scrabbled in her cupboards for a packet of Bisto. I piled four plates with roast potatoes, braised red cabbage and honeyed parsnips, and then attempted to carve the pheasant. The knife could not find purchase anywhere, not just because of its blunted blade but due to the fact that underneath the bird’s crackled skin was a shaming lack of meat. What had happened to the tender gamy slices that John, just hours earlier, had promised would tantalize my guests’ taste buds this evening? I jabbed the carcase furiously with a fork and pulled at the parched remains which clung loyally to the bird’s ribcage. Both legs were tugged free and thrown as bony scraps onto my brother Tom and his wife Deborahs' plates. Mum and I had to make do with the residual withered flesh. The look on Tom’s face told me everything I needed to know: that pheasants are best left to roam the scrubby farmlands which embroider the West Pennine Moors where perhaps the cock’s coppery plumage and scarlet cheeks can be viewed respectfully through the lens of a scope.
At 9.05 the following Monday morning the office telephone rang and as expected John’s voice asked me how well the pheasant had gone down. I answered lightly: “Oh well, not too bad ... although I did find it hard to cut, perhaps I should invest in a sharper knife. How do you carve yours?” Was it my imagination or did John’s answering cackle transmute eerily into the briskly whirring ‘Kor, Kor’ of a mocking pheasant before it jolts from the grasses and staggers into hurried flight.

I would not give up on pheasant and resolved that one day it would be the plump and tasty table centrepiece that John had so boasted about. Although some years did pass before I purchased another bird. By then I was happily married to Martin, who was always eager to share new experiences in dining. I found Mike Robinson’s novel way of cooking pheasant while browsing the internet one afternoon and tried it out for our evening meal. It was a struggle to remove the bird’s backbone and I found that the rosemary, olive oil and lemon marinade was just a touch too summery for this most seasonal of meats. My next foray into pheasant gastronomy was last December when I took advantage of an amazing offer displayed at one of Bolton market’s meat stalls: three pheasants for £6.00. My family were coming round for dinner that evening and I decided I would try casseroling the birds. I found a suitable recipe here in Gordon Ramsay’s World Kitchen: pheasant Casserole with winter vegetables and calcannon.  I duly jointed the pheasants, browned them in batches and filled my casserole pot with a medley of cubed carrots, parsnips and celeriac before pouring in the required amount of honey and red wine. My kitchen was filled with a deep and satisfyingly rustic aroma as I allowed the dish to cook for Gordon’s prescribed time of one hour and a quarter. Although the flavours married well, I was still not totally satisfied with the pheasant’s unyielding flesh as I watched yet another bewildered brother pull bones as sharp as needles from his teeth. This time it was Mr. Ramsay who had let me down with his promise of succulence and moistness. Was the temperature too high? Should the birds be cooked slowly at a lower heat? There was something I was doing wrong and neither I nor any future pheasant of mine were going to be beaten; these beautiful birds deserved to be savoured.

Another cold December; snow has fallen and outside our front door is a scene from Narnia. Martin and I have been stocking up our freezer with fish and meat. Our favourite stall on Bolton Market has extended last year’s offer; this time it is four plump pheasants for £10.00. I could not resist and now feel satisfied that, if more snow should descend and we are not able to venture out on Christmas Eve for our festive turkey, we have a couple of pheasants to serve us heartily for Christmas dinner. Yes I am deeply satisfied and this is because, after many years, I have found the perfect way of cooking pheasant. Thanks to Nigel Slater.
*My married name was the snigger-inducing surname of Rummery, shortened merrily by John to the more pleasing nickname of Rum.
A pot-roast pheasant

This recipe has been adapted from Nigel Slater’s pot-roast pheasant with celeriac mash featured in that king of cookery tomes Tender: Volume 1. I say adapted only because I did not have the sage leaves, pancetta or dry Marsala stipulated in Nigel’s ingredients list. Instead of Marsala I used dry cider and in place of sage leaves, I added sprigs of thyme. Although Nigel announces that, “Pheasant and celery get on rather well,” and that, “Celeriac seems to be one of the most successful mashes to serve with the mildly gamy flesh of this bird,” I served it with plain old mashed potato and felt it to be a fitting partnership. Perhaps the creamy blandness of my mashed whites took nothing away from the, dare I say it, moist and succulent (and here I should add juicy) pheasant flesh that took its rest on my dinner plate.
Serves Two
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 oven-ready pheasant
2 garlic cloves (finely sliced)
A few sprigs of thyme
200ml dry cider

Set the oven at 180°C/Gas 4. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed casserole over a medium heat. Add the pheasant and allow to colour evenly on all sides. I would recommend taking some care over this as you don’t want the skin to crisp up too much and yet it does need enough time to become a pleasing golden brown. Add the garlic and thyme and then pour in the dry cider allowing it to come to the boil. Cover your casserole with its lid and place in the oven for no longer than 40 minutes. You may turn the pheasant once during cooking.
Place the pheasant on a chopping board and cover with foil allowing the bird to rest for at least 10 minutes before carving.
Nigel recommends halving the bird with a heavy cook’s knife. I simply used a sharp carving knife and separated the legs from the body and carved the remaining flesh. Ceremoniously, I carried my platter of pheasant to our dining table and served it with buttered carrots, steamed broccoli, mashed potato and the spooned over hot juices from the pot. Finally I had mastered the art of pheasant-roasting.
It is clear to me now what had gone wrong with my previous birds. I had cooked them for too long in either too much liquid or, with more disastrous results, not enough. The 200ml of dry cider barely lapped at the bird’s thighs but was just enough to steam the tender flesh to perfection. And although Nigel does not request you rest the bird before carving, I felt that this procedure helped gain the succulence I was so desperate to achieve.  I will leave this blog posting by adding that the flesh of this particular pheasant must easily rival that of the most expensive and perfectly cooked free-range organic chicken. Meaty, rich and with a depth of flavour that makes you gasp with pleasure. Merry Christmas.