Thursday, 3 January 2008

I am not a pheasant plucker.

Digg this

No seriously, I am not. I hate the job.

When I was a young man of seventeen I worked for a season butchering pheasants, but we used a machine to pluck them. After I left the army I became involved with syndicate shoot and found, surprisingly, that I actually prefer beating (as long as I can carry a gun at the back of the line) to standing at a gun post. I also discovered that pheasants are far more easily skinned than plucked.

I don't really enjoy the taste of pheasant that much, preferring duck, pigeon, snipe, partridge or guinea fowl, but there are always far more pheasants to go around, so I put them in the pot anyway.

I tend to hang my birds for about 3 or 4 days. I have been known to leave them a week, but anything longer than a fortnight is ruined meat as far as I am concerned. I ideally like my birds roasted in a tin or a brick, but I do not favour the roast bird when it has been skinned and choose to plump instead for a stew or casserole.

Before I go on, I feel it is important whenever discussing game fowl, to remember ark Hanbury Beaufoy's The Father's Advice:

If a sportsman true you'd be
Listen carefully to me.
Never, never let your gun
Pointed at any one;
That it may unloaded be
Matters not the least to me.
When a hedge or fence you cross
Though of time it cause a loss,
From your gun the cartridge take
For the greater safety sake.
If 'twixt you and neighbouring gun
Bird may fly or beast my run,
Let this maxim e'er be thine;
"Follow not across the line."
Stops and beaters, oft unseen,
Calm and steady always be;
"Never shoot where you can't see."
Keep your place and silent be;
Game can hear, and game can see;
Don't be greedy, better spared
Is a pheasant, than one shared.
You may kill, or you may miss,
But at all times think of this
"All the pheasants ever bred
Won't repay for one man dead."

That out the way, let us press on with the post.

If you haven't already worked it out, this is intended to be a short 'how to' on preparing a pheasant for the pot. Much as with the rabbit preparation tutorial, this is not intended to be an authoritative lesson, but rather an insight into how Manley prepares birds. As I mentioned earlier, I have butchered, plucked and dressed more game than most (indeed, as a younger man the boast that I had once had 752 birds in the back of my camper van was one of which I was most proud, although I never made it clear that these were game birds, collected from Tapely Manor, near Bideford, on an occasion when we had to utilise my camper as the usual van had broken down). I know how to dress game, I simply choose not to.

Following my advice here will not teach the reader how to become an expert, but rather how to turn a dead bird into an ingredient. To start with, or course, one requires a bird.

I've got a brace of birds to deal with and I forgot about them, so it is quite late now, but if I am to have a casserole tomorrow then I need to get the slow cooker ready. I have already filled it with potatoes, stock, cranberries, apples, onions, carrots, peas, spinach, basil, some spices, tomato purée and so on. I would add a fair amount of salt to this normally as I feel that game needs it, but having three children under 7 I tend to add to taste after it is on my plate. This is not ideal, so if you don't have any reason not to load it up with saline then now is the best time to bang it in there.

Pheasant feathers get everywhere and, now that I have brought the birds indoors and they are warming up, blood will start to flow too.

Always put the birds on some newspaper or similar, so that it is easy to get rid of the mess afterwards.

Does Doctor Who not look a little like Giles to you? Anyway, take a good look at the bird. this one has been shot through the wing, so probably fell quite heavily - this is more likely to lead to bruised meat, but it shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Additionally there is a shot hole in the crop.

In a pheasant's digestive system, the crop is an expanded, muscular pouch near the gullet or throat which forms part of the digestive tract, essentially an enlarged part of the oesophagus, which is used to temporarily store food. All this is going to mean to me is that there is going to be a lot more mess than I would like, as the undigested corn will go everywhere.

What we are looking for here is entry wounds which show where a pellet might be lodged in the meat. A pellet can break a tooth and also, if it punctures an internal organ (in particular the stomach) it can leave the meat around the wound a little distasteful.

Now I am going to pluck a small section of the breast.

Normally I would pluck a far smaller section, just enough so that I can see flesh. Pheasant skin is very weak and hardly holds on to the feathers at all, so plucking these birds is an easy job. Where one might be tempted to plunge a goose or a turkey carcass into boiling water before plucking, the pheasant is no effort. The only downsides are time and mess.

I personally prefer not to pluck a wet bird as, although the mess is more confined, the job takes longer and is far less pleasant. As you can see, there is an entry wound here on the breast, so I shall inspect here for a pellet once I am in.

It isn't clear in the photograph, but I push a knife through a fold of skin and then draw it towards me, to leave a flap of skin. It is not necessary to do this - as I have mentioned, the skin is very weak on the bird - but it makes for a tidier job.

Once the flap or 'tag' of skin is free, grasp this tightly and wrench it headwards.

The skin will tear easily and you should be left with a naked breast.

From here the procedure is much like that with the rabbits. Removing the skin from the legs is simply a matter of undressing the bird, much as one undresses a baby, by gently but firmly pushing the leg up and out of the skin. This hen bird has a broken leg. It can be easy to cut a finger quite badly on splintered bone, so I am going to remove this leg at the knee joint, but it is normal to leave the leg intact. The softer, feather bearing skin will naturally separate easily at the join with the hardier leg. Additionally I want to show Ayse how the ligaments and tendons in a bird's foot work to compare with her recent injury.

Once the thigh is proud of the skin, it is a simple matter to tuck a finger behind the 'knee' and pull the leg clear. The bright yellow areas visible in this image are the bird's fat. I tend to chuck a little of this into the pot along with the meat. This way the fat mixes with the bird and keeps it moist, much as it does when the bird is roasted in a tin or brick.

Once the leg is clear it is simply a mater of repeating the procedure for the other leg. Wings and the lower back of a pheasant represent very little value and the lower thigh is often too muscular to make good eating, but the upper thigh is sometimes excellent. In reality though, the main thrust of a pheasant's use, when it comes to the pot, is in the breasts and these will account for almost all of the food gleaned from the bird.

Cutting the meat from the bird is done in two ways. The legs are butchered by literally tearing the meat away. It helps to have a knife to make starting cuts, but a pheasant's legs are so stringy that the only good way I have found to separate the meat from the gristle is manually.

The breast can be carved as one would with a cooked bird. It comes away very easily, but one must be sure to avoid cutting any organs.

There you have it, a complete guide to stealing the easy meat from a bird. If you have the time or the inclination it is better to pluck the pheasant and draw it. To do this one stabs the bird under the rib cage and removes all that is inside, then cuts away the crop and removes the head and neck by firmly grasping the body and yanking the head backwards until it detaches.

This method is preferable to cutting as it leaves no unattractive stump, although sometimes the bird will expel air through the beak, due to the chest cavity being held tightly, and open the beak, due to the motion of the neck, and it can be unpleasant to watch a gutted bird caw.
For now though, I am simply left with the task of removing the meat, checking for shot and putting the birds in the pot.

As a closing note, I mean this to be educational and ask that you maintain a level of respect for the bird. This is important to me, I kill to eat and I do have to butcher in an objective manner and there is no place for sympathy, but there is still a need for respect. I have met people who enjoy the act of killing, but I find it unhealthy. For me, it's just the procedure required to produce the food.

Personally I think that I would much rather be a pheasant than a chicken. A pheasant lives a free life and then it is suddenly cut short. A chicken's existence is pretty grim.

If you care about animal welfare at all then please, go eat more game.

I have never skinned my children.


thor_sonofodin said...

splendidly done my lordship, i especially like your rabbit skinning information.

i have gratefully managed to secure some birds from a friends shoot this year and plucked and drawn said birds , two of which were done on xmas eve and now reside in my brother in laws freezer in exwick.

i've not had the opportunity to go on any shoots as to know if i enjoy the act of killing, but i did enjoy working on a clay shoot when i was in my early teens for a few years.

as for the act of preparing a bird i find a kind of detachment from the cute living bird and meat that will end up in my pot.

i also remind myself that the bird isn't native to the UK and that they have had a wonderful freerange life on good food and not shut in a barn and fed steroids.

Ted-in-South-Dakota said...

Very well said.

I'm in the United States - South Dakota to be specific. Our pheasant season recently closed on 1/6/2007. Many lands are owned by the public and open to hunting. I was able to shoot 65 pheasants this year.

They've been delicious. A dozen or more are on the way to the smokehouse this afternoon. Smoked pheasant, if you've never had it, is fantastic.

Game in the US is considered property of the public and can be hunted by anyone.