The following extract along with the John Spencer`s lovely illustration come my book Simply British (1998), see Books.  If you’d like to make Potted Pheasant turn to Cook Now, I’ll be posting it up shortly.


Pheasant poached.  Pheasant is fairly common in England in summer when the cock invades the cottage gardens to sneak the peas.  You catch him quietly, with a paper bag and raisins.


Smear the paper cone inside with treacle or gum, put a few raisins at the bottom, and prop the bag up amongst the peas.  When he sticks his head in he cannot see where to go, so he stands still till you fetch him.’  Food in England by Dorothy Hartley, 1954.


The pheasant, as any country dweller will tell, is an extraordinarily stupid bird.  It may look exquisitely beautiful and taste delicious, but its wits are dim.  This dullness only increases its charm for both shooter and poacher.  Once startled by the beaters, it rises up and flies in an erratic manner that tests the skill of any shot.  Poachers, on the other hand, appreciate its capacity to be dazzled by torchlight, as it is too confused to resist their deft hands.


Pheasants were originally introduced into Britain by the Romans, who fattened them in pens, along with their hens, ducks and geese.  Curiously, they then disappear from our records until the middle of the eleventh century.  However, once reinstated on the royal menus, they made up for lost time by being bred in increasingly large quantities.  By the eighteenth century ever more beautiful breeds were introduced from the Far East, much to the plague of tenant farmers and local gardeners.  Unlike other types of game, pheasants were reared by landowners and small country families alike.  Gamekeepers bred them for the huge shooting parties that first became popular in the nineteenth century, while local families kept them as poultry.  Perhaps because of this, the pheasant has avoided the exclusivity of grouse and the over-familiarity of rabbit and has remained popular right up until today.  It has not,  however, escaped from its awesome reputation of being tough, a problem that many a person has had to wrestle with, including the bon vivant Dr Grant in Mansfield Park as described by his unsympathetic sister-in-law Mary Crawford: ‘Dr Grant is ill,’ said she, with mock solemnity.  ‘He has been ill ever since; he did not eat any of the pheasant to day. He fancied it tough – sent away his plate – and has been suffering ever since.’  (Jane Austen, 1814.)  The solution lies in careful hanging and even more astute cooking.  No cook should risk his or her guest’s good will when it comes to a chewy bird; better by far to tenderize it by chopping and potting.


Pheasants combine the best of most game birds – they come in a reasonable size with a sensible price yet taste delicious.  They have a delicate gamey flavour that works equally well plainly roasted or served in a richly flavoured ragout. What is more, they are equally good served hot or cold.  Who could ask for more?



The pheasant season stretches from 1 October to 1 February (or 31 January in Northern Ireland).  Pheasant is considered at its best in November and December, as it becomes increasingly tough towards the end of its season.  Old birds need to be slowly simmered, gently pot-roasted or finely chopped.  Hen pheasants are usually slightly plumper and more juicy than the larger cock birds.  One pheasant will serve 2 people generously.  A brace of pheasants consists of a hen and cock bird. 


All pheasants should be hung by their heads uneviscerated for up to 10-14 days if the weather is cold, dry and crisp.  This will tenderize their flesh, intensify their flavour and make them easier to pluck.  Unhung pheasant is supposed to taste like chicken.  However, if the weather is warm, a mere 5 days will suffice.  Care is needed, as if you hang your bird for too long it will literally go off.  It is supposed to be ready for eating when you can easily pull out one of its tail feathers.  If you are presented with a freshly shot pheasant, you can either hang it in a cool airy outhouse, out of reach of enterprising cats and foxes, or you can rush round to your local butcher.   Many will not only hang your bird for you, for a small fee they will pluck, gut and prepare it as well.  Having had the pleasure of the latter, I can thoroughly recommend persuading someone else to pluck and gut it – it is not a task for the squeamish.


If you are buying from a supermarket you have no means of gauging a pheasant’s age, so you have to trust to the skill of their buyers.  Otherwise, you are best advised to inspect your bird while still in its feathers.  A young hen pheasant will be a lighter colour than an older bird.  Next check its wings – when young, both sexes have soft downy feathers on the underside and rounded (as opposed to pointed) flight feathers.  Finally, if you are buying a cock bird, look to see if it has short, rounded spurs, as these lengthen and sharpen with age. 



*  Traditionally roast pheasant is accompanied by a clear gravy, and can also be served with bread sauce, fried breadcrumbs and/or an apple, crab apple, rowan, redcurrant or red gooseberry jelly.  Fresh watercress, game chips, Brussels sprouts, chicory, celery, celeriac and cabbage are also popular accompaniments.

*  Stewed pheasant taste particularly good with bacon, button onions, wine and mushrooms or apples, cider and cream.  Sweet herbs such as thyme, bay, rosemary, parsley and tarragon also complement pheasant, as do juniper berries, mace, cayenne pepper, lemon and orange zest.

*  British recipe books cannot agree on the most effective way to roast a young pheasant.  Some advocate stuffing, others insist the opposite; some recommend liberal basting, others a careful wrapping in streaky bacon, while a few maintain that pheasants need no such attention as they are fatty enough.  There are no hard and fast rules so it is best to play it safe.  Always make sure that your bird is regularly basted, whether it be with the pan juices or a baacon jacket.  If you feel like making it go further or you just enjoy it, add stuffing, otherwise omit it and lessen the cooking time by 15 minutes.



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