I had this image of rural living. There I would be, tweeds, Hunter wellies, a springer spaniel to roam the fields with, flushing pheasant and woodcock that I would efficiently dispatch with my trusty side-by-side, 12-bore shotgun. Then it would be back home to a nice whiskey, my slippers, an open fire and the smell of roasting game wafting from the kitchen.
You get the picture, all very civilised, gentile and clean. Unfortunately, my dreams of this rural idyll have been shattered by the reality of getting up-close and personal with my first brace of pheasant.
But, let’s back up a bit so that I can explain exactly what happened. Since coming to live on the Peninsula, I have seen lots of pheasants in the fields, on the roads and we even managed to flush a few while we were out for our walks. One morning, I received a text message from a neighbour that read ‘there’s a pheasant in your garden.’ I rushed out (in my slippers) and sure enough there was a plump cock pheasant just taking wing and heading over the ditch. Now, I don’t have a gun but I thought that there must be someone in the area shooting these birds. So, I did what any Irishman would do when faced with a dilemma and asked about the pheasants in the one place I knew I would get the right answer, the pub.
Sure enough, ‘there are one or two ‘lads’ shooting in the area,’ I was informed and Eileen, our wonderful pub landlady, would let them know I was looking for pheasant.
I forgot all about this until a week ago. We had just returned from the Bantry Farmers’ Market and, as we were unloading the car, a man arrived with a gun. At first I thought ‘it’s a bit early for the villagers to be turning up with guns; I’ve only been here a month and I don’t think I have written anything that controversial for the local newspaper…yet.’
I smiled nervously. ‘I have something for you,’ the man with the gun said as he opened the trunk of his car. To my surprise and delight, he handed me two beautiful cock pheasants, freshly shot and still warm. Holding the birds, I marvelled at their plumage; I began to think about how I would cook them and, more importantly, what we would drink with them.
Then I realised that these lovely birds were not ‘oven ready’ and would need some work before I could think about cooking them.
I knew the convention is for the pheasants to be ‘hung’ by their necks in a cool place for a minimum of two days. This gives the gamey taste time to, shall we say, mature. I have read accounts of birds being hung until the body separates from the neck (up to two weeks) but that was just a step too far for me, so we hung the birds in my daughter’s bathroom and opened the window. So far, so good.
Next, I needed advice on how to prepare the birds for the oven. As a twenty-first century man, I knew that there was one place that would answer all my questions and show me how to go about preparing the pheasants in a step-by-step way. Thank God for YouTube.
After a quick search, I found a video of a chef preparing a pheasant by skinning it. I watched the video and it all looked very easy and relatively clean and quick. But then I remembered that we had friends coming to visit who not only would appreciate the pheasants but would know how to prepare and cook the lovely birds as well.
Harro and Gisi have been living on the Peninsula since 1995 after moving from Hamburg in Germany. They have their own chickens and ducks and are used to preparing these for the table. I asked for their help and offered them one of the pheasants in return.
It was then that I should have seen the dark clouds gathering. As Gisi enthused about the lovely birds, how easy it would be to prepare them and how good they would taste, I noticed Harro standing in the background shaking his head. I should have asked him why.
It was decided that we would let the birds hang until Tuesday (it was now Sunday and the pheasants were on their second day in the bathroom) then I would bring them to Harro and Gisi’s house where we would pluck and dress the pheasants. On Monday, we got a call, ‘could you hold off until Thursday and bring the birds then?’ Harro asked. ‘Oh, and wear old clothes,’ Harro said as he put down the phone. Still, no alarms going off in my head.
When we arrived on Thursday morning, the pheasants had been hanging for almost a week. Now, Gisi had never heard of skinning a pheasant so plucking was the order of the day as we made our way to the greenhouse. Harro arrived with a bucket of hot water, said ‘Mein Gott’ and disappeared into the kitchen.
We immersed the pheasants in the hot water and set about plucking the birds. At first, I was feeling positive about the procedure. The feathers were coming off very nicely and I was keeping the skin intact, which according to Gisi is important. ‘This is great,’ I thought to myself, ‘normally I remove the wrapper from my food and stick it in the oven; now, here I am plucking and preparing food that roamed wild on the Peninsula. I feel like such a “real man”.’
However, this didn’t last long. Firstly, there was this strange smell. I noticed that as I removed the feathers from the ‘ass’ of the bird there was what I can only describe as a green, gooey lump about the size of a golf ball, which was beginning to ooze out between my fingers. I continued to pluck. The smell got stronger. Gisi, who was plucking the other bird, was chatting away about the herbs and the sauce she was going to make, when suddenly the greenhouse began to spin.
I had to get out, but what was I to do with the pheasant and oozing green stuff? I will tell you what happened next to the best of my ability. I stood up. ‘Are you alright?’ my wife asked. ‘I just need some air,’ I said as I bolted towards the door. The smell seemed to be everywhere, I couldn’t catch my breath, what would I do? Walk around, walk around. It’s raining! It doesn’t matter, deep breaths, don’t get sick, for God’s sake, don’t get sick all over the lovely garden!
It was then I saw Harro standing at the kitchen window with a knowing look. He took me in to the house and gave me water. ‘Will you have some schnapps? I can never stand it when Gisi wants to prepare a bird. You are lucky; Gisi makes me cut the heads off the ducks and chickens. I always have a whiskey first,’ Harro said as I sat down by the fire. ‘We will leave the women at it; they can handle it better than we can,’ Harro said as he opened a bottle of sparkling wine.
As I sipped my sparkling wine, my wife and Gisi arrived back with the prepared pheasants.
I have decided to adjust my image of life in rural Ireland. I will happily wear the tweeds, walk the dog and look at birds in the fields. But, the next time I decide to eat game, someone else can deal with the green ooze and that terrible smell. It’s oven ready or nothing for me from now on.