The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: a change from turkey…my partridge (or pheasant) in a pear tree

Many people are becoming much more experimental in the kitchen and, where once, turkey or goose took centre stage, now there are many different options for the Christmas table. Aside from a good joint of beef, leg of lamb or meltingly soft slow-cooked pork shoulder many people look to game – especially in smaller households,  where cooking a large bird is impractical and would encourage waste. A haunch of venison, of course, is certainly more suited to a large party but, for a simple and delicious alternative, for that more intimate celebration, why not consider game birds?

Pheasant can be braised whole, with pancetta and cider and apples,  then finished with a slug of cream

Partridge breasts make an excellent first course

Venison Carpaccio is seen on the menus of the country’s best restaurants

Wild boar is a great choice – we slow cook ours with lots of red wine and garlic; it’s richness allows it to take on some really bold flavours – you never have to be worried about what you throw in with wild boar, most things work!

One of my personal favourite recipes for pheasant, or partridge, is pan-fried with IMG_6782pancetta and pears on a celeriac puree, with Savoy cabbage and a blackberry port reduction. It’s an impressive looking dish which is really quite easy (and surprisingly) quick to put together.

Peel and boil your celeriac as you would potato, if you are preparing ahead make sure to keep the celeriac under water (ideally with a little squirt of lemon juice) to prevent browning.

Add a couple of teaspoons of oil to a frying pan and fry two rashers of thinly sliced pancetta per person until crisp and gently browned. Set aside and add a small knob of butter to the pan. Season one pheasant breast or two partridge breasts per person with salt and pepper, then quickly fry on a medium/high  heat until golden brown, place in an oven preheated to 180 degrees c for 5 mins (partridge) or 8 (pheasant). It’s very important not to let the meat dry out as game can be rather tough if overcooked. I check the oven every three minutes or so, the flesh should be firm when pressed but not rubbery – sadly, timing is something which rather depends on the size of the bird.

Finely slice the Savoy cabbage and fry with a little water and lots of butter until cooked, then allow the water to evaporate allowing the butter to turn into a an unctuous glaze. Season with black pepper

Meanwhile, quickly fry some fresh pear (It looks rather pretty if sliced top to bottom, although if you find this a little tricky, tinned pear quarters, sliced, also work rather well too), when caramelised, place them in the oven with the meat to keep warm.

Deglaze the pan with a small glass of port, add a tablespoon or two of blackberry jam and allow it to bubble a little, then set aside. This rich ‘jus’ will have taken on all the delicious flavours of the pan.

Mash the Celeriac with butter, salt and pepper. I use a 1/4 to 3/4, butter to veg, as it gives an incredibly smooth and rich puree which foils the rather more ‘plain’ game rather well.

Place a couple of spoonfuls of celeriac on each plate, top with a little cabbage, slice the breasts on an angle and place on top with the pears. Spoon the reduction around the plate (a little goes a long way) and finally finish with the crisp pancetta.

This will certainly impress guests and could be served as a starter or main.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Stories of Stilton

There are certain things that I order every Christmas, which admittedly, are rather indulgent; whole cheeses, specialist drinks, charcuterie and chocolate. These are the items which make the Christmas period extra special, impresses guests and, in their own way creates family traditions – without exception I always seek out a really good Stilton, but I opt for a whole ‘baby’ cheese, even I would be pushed to consume a whole standard Stilton!

Christmas and Stilton go hand in hand, served with Port after pudding, the salty voluptuousness of this very British cheese compliments the sweet port admirably. Stilton is one of the few cheeses in the UK awarded  PDO (protected designation of origin) status and has it’s own protected logo. It can only be made in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire although its true origins are a little more sketchy . The village of Stilton, which is now in Cambridgeshire, and where the name originated in the 18th century, is not within the PDO boundaries, therefore no cheese made there can be sold as Stilton. Believed to have originated in the early 18th century, Stilton is synonymous with the famous Bell Inn, which, in the 1720s allegedly produced the best cheese in the town. This was most likely the work of early entrepreneur and hotelier Cooper Thornhill who ‘discovered’ the cheese in Melton Mowbray and negotiated exclusive re-sale rights. His hotel, situated on the Great North Road proved an excellent location from which to deal in Stilton and its fame spread.

IMG_6600Stilton should be left to breathe before serving, and, although today we scoop the gently rippled, blue cheese from within its rind, before spreading it on crackers, oatcakes or crusty bread, originally it was served in a rather more unusual fashion. Daniel Defoe, wrote in 1724, that he passed through Stilton, a town famous for a cheese which is known as English Parmesan. The cheese was brought to the table with mites or maggots surrounding it, so thick as to require a spoon to consume – these were eaten alongside the cheese -so next time you and your friends consider why Stilton is spooned, you may want to share that rather ‘interesting’ nugget of culinary history.

So what makes a true Stilton cheese? Stilton is made from local pasteurised milk and is an un-pressed cheese, the distinctive blue veining comes from the insertion of steel rods during the maturing process, which allows the air to get into the cheese and react with the cultures. It must have the flavour profile of Stilton and hold a fat content of approximately 35 %. It is ripened for 9-12 weeks and must conform to the traditional conical shape. Celebrated in poetry and song, the Stilton will long be a part of our Christmas table. Delicious with pears or melted into cream for a British take on Fondue, Stilton is a versatile cheese which, quite rightfully, has its place at the centre of the Great British Cheeseboard – although, a word of warning, Stilton is said to cause bad dreams if eaten too soon before sleep – and pouring port into the recess left after scooping the cheese out is considered very uncouth indeed!


Offally Good for the Autumn

I think, on this cold and damp autumn day, that I should spend a few minutes extolling the virtues of offal. Once very much on the British menu it became a no go area due to health scares and the increasing availability of cheap prime cuts, from intensively farmed animals. Now there is a little bit of a revival with gastro-pubs and on-trend restaurants offering an ever more offal based menu.

I believe that you should choose the best pasture raised or/and organic meat possible, there is a wonderful density to proper meat; almost as if its very molecular structure is more solid than its over-farmed, overbred counterparts. But, yes, it is expensive, however it doesn’t need to be so when you consider offal. Admittedly I am not a kidney fan but am happy to cook with pretty much any other part, sweetbreads are a particular favourite along with liver, heart and head (although not sure that’s strictly offal).

I, for one, would indubitably  prefer to eat offal from a good source rather than chance fillet from a bad. It is also ‘offally’ good for you, packed with iron and minerals in which many of us are depleted. Telling children to “Eat up your liver” is rarely heard today in our low-fat, diabetic, obese society and it is a shame. You can always hide liver in faggots or cottage pie, fresh liver doesn’t taste too strong and lamb’s liver is naturally much milder than Pig’s.  Sweetbreads are delicious floured and fried and no, they aren’t anything to do with a Lamb’s genitalia as many think, they are in fact  the thymus gland, located in the neck, or the pancreas. Heart benefits from stuffing and slow cooking and tastes dense and meaty, it was very much favoured during my grandmother’s childhood when the First World War, followed by the depression,  made meat relatively hard to come by and heart was considered a treat.

Last week, as Autumn drove its claws into the country properly for the first time I made a simple liver and bacon dish with a kale colcannon mash and a port gravy. The liver was lamb and very fresh. Do not be put off by the leathery  liver offered by your primary school – which was a world away from the pink, juicy and smooth textured liver from a fresh Lamb. I use proper dry cured smoked bacon, thickly cut and pan fried until crisp and glistening with fat. Set aside to keep warm – in goes the liver, lightly coated in seasoned flour; it takes minutes – no more that two per side, it should rest as steak but not for too long for then it takes on the leathery quality all too familiar to us seventies and eighties children. I deglaze the pan with a little port, add a spoonful of flour to make a paste, throw in some caramelised red onions (first cooked very slowly in a generous amount of butter), whisk in my homemade lamb stock, then a dash of gravy browning and finally some seasoning. Bubble for a few minutes over a low heat. My colcannon is made with local white potatoes, double cream and some sautéed Kale which is just in season. Kale is considered a superfood and it’s irony taste can be overwhelming for some, however, alongside the liver it works splendidly. Serve the colcannon in generous dollops topped with a spoon of salted butter to melt in. The liver should be meltingly yielding, the bacon crisp and the gravy rich. Perfect for a cold October night.