Of Pigeons, Pies, and Flakey Flossy’s Pastry
November 23, 2018
Clay Pigeon Practice
Arriving in the countryside the day before the pheasant shoot, I was invited to try my hand at shooting clay pigeons; terracotta discs which are released from machines to mimic the speed and trajectory of birds in flight.
It started well. The barrels on a modern shotgun are “over and under”, and there’s a single trigger which you pull twice to fire. I found it difficult to see if I’d hit the clay, only to be told I needn’t have fired a second shot; my first round clipped the clay, but the second smashed it.
My experience of instinctive archery may have helped me to relax at first, but then I tensed up and began to overthink.
The posture in the photo is a bit of a clue; leaning back nervously from this loud, dangerous and unfamiliar piece of kit.
They tell you to resist the temptation to turn towards your mates to celebrate a hit. Break the gun open as soon as you’ve fired, making it clear it’s not loaded. The spent cartridges pop out, and you quickly learn how to avoid them hitting you in the face. (They’re hot!)
I also tried firing a restored 19th century English gentleman’s fowling piece, with side-by-side barrels, two hammers and two triggers. Despite its slender appearance, it was like shooting a musket: a loud thud, a flash, a puff of smoke and the sulphurous reek of black powder.
(I missed. With both barrels).
As for shooting pheasants? Yes, I had a go the following day.
Reader, I missed (again).
A substantial Game Pie
My hosts for the weekend met and married in London, but Tim returned to live near the farm where he grew up, and fairly quickly “went native” (he’s the one who organises the shoot). His wife Kate was more ambivalent about country life, but came round to it eventually. She’s a wonderful cook, but also ambivalent about the annual challenge of dealing with a glut of game birds.
On the night of arrival (Friday) we met at a local pub and, suitably refreshed, went back to the house for “a simple supper”: potted pigeon, a game pie, a game terrine, salads, cheeses, pickles, chutneys….
There were five of us.
I wish I’d taken a picture of the pie, it was the perfect centrepiece – hand raised like a pork pie, and so packed with meat that Kate had to serve the sloe jelly separately, there was no room to pour it inside the crust. She said it was easy enough to make; she had just cooked all the game she had accumulated in the freezer, and combined it with pork shoulder.
The hot water crust is a pretty traditional recipe (Mary Berry or Delia Smith). Kate marinated her game in red wine, juniper and thyme overnight, seasoned her pork with more thyme, nutmeg, salt and pepper, and let that infuse overnight too. The jelly was made with game stock, redcurrant jelly and sloe gin.
Dealing with pheasants
After Saturday’s shoot, I was given a brace of birds to take home and deal with. Tim and Kate have so many in the course of the season that they advised skinning them, rather than embark on the long and messy business of plucking, then to take off the breasts, and use the rest of the carcasses to make stock.
I hung them in a cool place for three days, then this video from the Shooting Times proved useful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbwSGPtLUxw
There are many recipes for cooking pheasant. I wrote this one down decades ago (two or three?) and can’t remember where I found it. Looking at it now, the cooking time and use of flour seem excessive, but my sister and my mother-in-law both swear by it as a dinner party stand-by, so I give it to you as written:
Pheasant Casserole (for 6)
1½ oz butter, 1½ tbsps oil, 2 sliced onions.
3 oz flour. 1½ pints stock.
The juice and finely grated rind of two oranges.
2 heaped tbsps redcurrant jelly.
¼ pint of Port.
1 bay leaf, a sprig of parsley, salt and pepper.
Fry the pheasants in butter and oil until golden, and transfer to a casserole. Add the onions to the frying pan, and cook until soft. Stir in the flour and cook for 5 minutes. Gradually add the stock and bring to the boil, stirring all the time. Allow to thicken. Add the remaining ingredients, and pour the sauce over the pheasants. Cover and cook in the oven for 3 hours at 325° / Gas Mk 3.
Footnote – ‘Countryman’s Cooking’
First published in 1965, Countryman’s Cooking is a minor culinary classic. Written by the appropriately named W. M. W. Fowler, it provided practical advice for men, in a time before the expression “Political Correctness” had been coined, let alone “Gone Mad”.
Fowler served as a Lancaster bomber pilot in WW2, and was shot down and captured by the Germans in 1941. His time as a Prisoner of War heightened his interest in food but “gave little scope for practice, except the stewing of the Kommandant’s cat with a black market onion!”
After the war he resumed life as a countryman in his native Cumbria, and set about learning to prepare and cook his food with masculine cunning.
His advice on preparing game is still invaluable, but for a pie, he says “the only snag to it is that you must have some pastry; and here, I fear, I cannot help you.” His solution was to bribe his “Glamorous Pastry-Maker, Flakey Flossy,” by plying her with gin.
“But don’t kiss her till she has carried out her duties; otherwise you will find the situation gets completely out of hand and you end up, hours later, with no gin, and no lid on your pie!”