Nov 15 2009

November Blues

Carol Trewin
My friend and food editor of The Western Morning News, Carol Trewin, finally lost her fight with leukaemia on October14th. We met on the committee of the Devon Slow Food Convivia some years ago and soon realised we simply could not bore each other, however hard we tried, with our delight in all things culinary. She encouraged me to keep writing and gave me invaluable help and advice. She was incredibly generous both with her time and professional expertise. We enjoyed wonderful lunches together, regular phone calls. and numerous foodie e mails. In August she asked me to give her a hand to finish her latest book. We planned our foodie tour of South Devon but it was not to be. In September Carol rang and asked me to read ”Picnics” from Elisabeth David’s Summer Cooking at her funeral. Sadly I did that last week looking out over Dartmoor in wild weather amongst a huge crowd of her friends.
How she would have laughed at Grimond de la Reyniere’s advice on pheasant. I miss her.phesy-450

Dark skies belie the time of day, three in the afternoon in mid November and the light is fading fast. Rain lashes sideways outside my window, trees, almost leafless now, outlined black against slate grey ceiling, bend double in the gale. Once again the huge Araucaria araucana dances its terrifying corkscrew dance, swivelling its vast hundred foot trunk this way and that. The radio blares warnings of eighty mile an hour winds, flood warnings, devastation. Dogs and I huddle by the fire in the study wondering if we can pull down the blind and shut out the world. But, no, first we must struggle up to the yard in the howling wind, heads down against the thrust. Soaked once more, we shut up wet little chickens, feed gloomy, bored donkeys, saying goodnight and shutting their door tight against the storm. We must check the ewes and Big Chris, the new ram, in Sunday Orchard before struggling up to the top fields to feed the yearlings and make sure they too are safe. What a storm. Even Mr Porter views this expedition with a lack of enthusiasm.
The garden which had opened it’s heart to the public in the summer, basking in glowing June sunshine, has gone to sleep. Liriodendron tulipifera sheds leaves as big as plates in the path as we walk. Katsura, almost bare now still warms the air with mouth watering smell of boiling caramel. All around us the air is alive with leaves, golden, yellow, brown flying past as trees close down all systems till spring. We tiptoe through a perpetual fruit salad on the ground. As fast as I collect apples, quince, medlars, walnuts, more cascade through the air landing at my feet.
A few leeks still stand forlornly by the shrivelled bean poles. A clump of scarlet chard stands alone majestic, glowing like a tiny fire. Nasturtiums flowers cling on defiantly till the first frost. A few roses bloom their swan song
Apples are pressed, juice strained and stored. Quince are transformed into deep crimson twinkling jelly, thick unctuous jam and sticky squares of sweet chewy membrilo; Christmas presents waiting in the store cupboard. Medlars, once bletted, will also become a translucent jelly to cheer up winter meals.
Wet walnuts are a treat with a glass of wine on a dark cold evening by the fire . Now we must fall back on all the harvested and stored produce of summer and autumn .
Autumn whirled past in the glow of golden sunshine, long shadows across the windswept fields After a quiet, peaceful week away in the Scillies we returned to a feast of friends and family throughout October. Sheep were brought into the yard for judging, sheep escaped, judges ran amuck snatching and catching at ram lamb horns, flying horizontal across the yard pursuing Chris before he ran off with the now plump ewe lambs. Older ladies scattered, chaos reigned. Guests looked on amazed and we won the Whiteface Dartmoor Sheep Association third prize for the best flock of under fifty breeding pedigree ewes!

Half term found us looking after grand children while parents absconded to Paris. It took two days to build a huge climbing frame gifted to us by a very generous friend . Paul heaved ladders, ropes, slides, swings into place. I was sent aloft to align higher beams and tighten nuts. Harry trimmed back bolts with a hack saw, Bee wielded a huge spanner and Flo gave us directions while retrieving instructions from the mud. We had unsuitable chocolate-rich picnics in the top barn, walls were scaled and courage screwed up to jump from the top door on to the soggy soft grass below. Trees were climbed, races run across Sunday Orchard, chickens cleaned out, donkeys stroked and brushed, the yard circumnavigated many times on bicycles; we all slept soundly.
November and the shooting season is in full swing, continuation of that Glorious Twelfth, which in turn means cooking pheasant, or thinking of another way to cook another pheasant! Roasting with bacon and chestnuts and brown crumbs is delicious provided the bird is plump and youngish, old skinny flyers turn into tough, dry chewy morsels.

Having trawled my cookery book collection once more for new ideas, I climbed the book shelf and pulled down my ancient dusty copy of Larousse Gastronomique 1966 price Five Guineas reduced to 55/- ; dense print and funny black and white photographs a myriad of dishes, huge mounds of trifle, grey Florentine eggs, an alarming looking dogfish. How colour photography has changed our cookery books and our diet! Despite such alarming recipes as a haddock stuffed with suet, trussed into an S shape, head still in place, baked in Madeira, it is without doubt a magnificent record of culinary art, really it is.

But back to pheasant; much is made of the faisandage of pheasant, indeed the very word is derived from faisan, French for pheasant. According to Larousse the great Brillat-Savarin is said to have held the opinion that ”faisain is not fit for the gastronome’s table unless it is in a state of putrification” Fortunately to my relief, Larousse goes on to say “this habit of hanging meat until high, though approved by a few connoisseurs and usually motivated by snobbery, is properly reprehended by those concerned with hygiene and also by the true gastronome”. What a relief to us all, not least Health and Safety and the Food Standards Agency.

But then I found the words of Grimod de la Reyniere 1758-1837, wily aristocratic who survived the Revolution, restaurateur and first critic of French food. He too shared Saverin’s view that pheasant should be well hung declaring that it “ wishes to be waited for as a government pension is waited for by a man of letters who never learnt how to flatter anyone” One wonders how indeed he did avoid the guillotine uttering such inflammatory words during the Revolution..

Famous for his dinner parties held at his parents house in their absence, he was eventually caught by his father and disinherited and “exiled“ to an Abbey near Nantes. He had a dressed pig for the occasion and placed it at the head of the table. His father was unamused. It was not until 1792 that he returned to Paris to continue his innovative gastronomique career. Finally in 1812 he inherited the family fortune on his mother‘s death, married his mistress, staged his own funeral to see how many friends he had and then retired to his Chateau outside Paris.

I digress. If pheasant is cooked as soon as it is killed the meat is tough and tasteless. If, however it is hung for a moderate time, say four or five days, the oil from the feathers is absorbed softening and adding flavour to the meat. But on no account should the bird be going off.

Pheasant “a la Normand” is definitely my favourite standby; apples calvados and cream seem to be made for pheasant and prevent the meat becoming dry. They compliment the flavour wonderfully and are ideal for oven ready birds which have been commercially prepared.

Brown a brace of pheasants in melted butter in a heavy frying pan then set aside on a plate. Melt more butter in the pan and fry a kilo of peeled and chopped apples till golden. A sweet apple is best such as Cox or reinette.

Choose a casserole that will snugly take the two birds. Put them breast-side-down on a thick layer of the apple. Pack the remaining apples all round the pheasants. Pour on 125ml of crème fraiche.

Cook gently for about an hour at gas 4 or 180c checking after forty minutes or so. After an hour take them from the oven, raise the heat to 8 or 230c and pour over more crème fraiche with 4 tablespoons of Calvados. Return to the oven for five minutes.

Leave to rest before serving. As with all meat resting for a while will make it easier to carve.

Sometimes I add celery or celeriac and smoked bacon or pancetta. There are a myriad of pot roast recipes for pheasant ; add cabbage or mushrooms, carrots, onions, truffles, red wine, Madeira, cider. A young bird may be spatchcocked, spread generously with butter and olive oil and grilled slowly till the flesh is firm and cooked through but still pink. In fact pheasant is a most accommodating game for experimentation.

And finally I love the sound of Hugh Fearnely-Wittingstall’s Flying Toad in the Hole! That will definitely be the destiny of the next bird I cook; pheasant breasts, prunes and bacon joining sausages in a traditional batter, sounds delicious.

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