A HIGH BIRD LUNCH

Does the date, 1st of October ring any bells? It should for the keen pheasant shooter. This date lets us know that the pheasant shooting season has now begun. This season lasts until the 1st of February, with the main action really kicking off towards the later stages. 

Some good friends and I were invited to join the guns on a commercial shoot deep in the heart of Mid Wales for some high bird action. We all met outside the local pub, where we then followed in convoy along the narrow lanes. It was a very mild, dry Saturday morning in early January, the roads were clear and after a few minutes we were on the shoot. After brief introductions and the usual shoot formalities we were on our way to the first drive of the day, which is normally a very good stand for high birds, but today not a shot was fired which I think was detriment to the two big foxes which emerged out of the wood and then rapidly sloped off to cover.

On the second drive, I was standing on peg 1, but because of the wind, we had all been moved up one peg. This actually suited me just fine. Peg 1 and peg 2 were separated by a thick hedge. Often the prevailing wind caused the pheasants to dip as they broke right, heading towards peg 1. Today, with was slightly stronger than normal, it was decided that everyone would get better shooting if we all moved up a peg. I could hear the beaters gently tapping their flags on their boots as they brought in the hedgerows towards the main drive. Through the gaps in the hedge I could see the right hand flank appear over the brow of the hill. It was very noticeable just how far back they were staying. The strength of the wind would definitely have an effect on the birds once they got air born.

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The radio chatter was being carried on the wind and from my position in the line I could clearly hear how things were being organised. I could tell that it wouldn’t be long before the action started.

The sound of flags cracking focused my attention to the top of the tree line. There were definitely birds in the air, but there was no way of knowing at which point they would appear over the trees. The first birds were a good covey of partridges. They burst over the trees to my left. They were out of range from me, towards the middle of the line. As they cleared the trees they curled on the wind, giving the middle to high numbers some fantastic shooting. Several birds fell to the shots, but they were fast and very sporting and the majority made it to safety without a feather being ruffled.

My head snapped back toward my front. I could hear the slap of wings against maize; I could hear the cracking of more flags before some spectacular pheasants cleared the trees and headed over the gun line. I connected firmly with the first two, quickly reloaded, but missed the third up the right hand side. The wind was making some very testing birds even more difficult. The shooting was continuous, but steady. I shot a cock bird early, square in the beak. It folded and landed between me and my neighbour. It was the only straight driven bird I saw for the entire drive. The wind was taking everything right to left. There were a small number of pheasants that broke out towards where I should have been stood on the actual number 1 peg, but as predicted before the drive started, they were ducking low under the wind. All the guns were being treated to a fantastic show of birds. I killed another good left and right, reloaded, killed the third, but missed the hen that was heading out to my right. She was just starting to dip and the shot went over the top.

By the end of the drive I had a total of 11 nice high birds, including one very high cock bird.

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After all the birds were accounted for I headed off back to where the vehicles were parked with a good bag of birds to start cooking lunch, while the rest of the guns proceeded to the next drive.

On returning to my truck we lay out straw bales to use as tables and seats, and I de-breasted the birds before preparing the cooking area and ingredients in the back of my Nissan Navara. I must say the kitchen floor was a bit messy as we were standing in about 3 inches of pure mud! But, that would not stop us.

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After 30 minutes or so the smells wafting around the woods were amazing and very soon the guns rejoined us with full game carriers and empty bellies. Everyone sat around to a lunchtime feast of pheasant breast drizzled in whole grain chili mustard, covered in finely cut chestnut mushrooms and wrapped in streaky bacon, served with sweet potato chips. There was also stir fried diced pheasant in golden syrup for those who wanted after’s. The feast was complimented by a number of bottles of Pouilly-Fuisse, a rich and racy white wine made from chardonnay fruit combined with spicy vanilla oak. Quite a complex wine with great flavour and texture to wash it all down.

The guns were so pleased with the rustic cooking that all agreed it was a valuable addition to a great day’s shooting, bringing everyone together whilst sharing the excitement of the day.

The guns carried on to the last two drives of the day with contentment in their bellies and a new game recipe. I stayed behind to clear and clean up my mobile kitchen, while finishing off the last little drop of wine. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Streaky Pheasant Breast Served With Sweet Potato Chips

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

4 Pheasant breasts, skinless
8 rashers of smoked streaky bacon
250 g chestnut mushrooms, thinly sliced. (Any well flavoured variety will do)
Whole grain mustard with chilly
Olive oil
Maldon salt and ground black pepper

For the sweet potato chips
2 large sweet potatoes. Peeled and cut into chips
Sunflower oil for frying
Maldon salt to season

METHOD

1. Put a deep pan on to heat up the sunflower oil. I used an old cast iron saucepan.

2. Wash and dry the pheasant breasts. Season with salt and pepper, both sides. Spread the whole grain mustard on one side, then thinly slice the chestnut mushrooms and place them on, covering the mustard.
Remove the rind from the bacon and carefully wrap two rashers around each of the breasts. Place a large heavy frying pan over medium heat and add a couple of glugs of olive oil. Do not let the pan get too hot as you do not want the bacon to burn before the pheasant is cooked. Add the breasts and sear for 4 to 5 minutes, until golden brown. Turn the pheasant over and lightly brown the other side. Remove the pheasant from the pan and keep warm until ready to serve.

3. Chop the sweet potatoes into medium sized chips. Use some kitchen role to pat the chips down before frying. Now add the chips to the hot oil and cook until golden and soft to the squeeze test.

4. Serve the pheasant breasts with the sweet potato chips, a pinch of flaked sea salt and a few grinds of the old pepper mill, a drizzle of olive oil and a couple of chunks of fresh crusty bread.

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Perched on a hay bale in the middle of the woods with my trusty cocker and Weimaraner sat beside me and a group of guns all enjoying good food, a glass of wine and some colourful banter, what more could you ask for?

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