Jon Day finds a taste for wild country food.
There is a cottage in the South Downs with a small valley of a garden, sunk below the brows of the surrounding hills. It is right on the wood-pigeon flight path – at dawn and dusk hundreds of birds cruise along the tree line, finding or leaving their roosts in the dense copse behind the orchard at the bottom of the garden; taking off with an explosive rattle of leaves and branches, landing with a series of exhausted coos. In the undergrowth, lords-and-ladies stand proud like fluorescent orange hand grenades jutting through the leaf-litter, startling and incongruous. Behind the copse is a field, and in the field a dynasty of rabbits dig the ground to pieces. The farmer who owns this land is always happy for someone to take a few for the pot.
This time he’s asked a man who owns ferrets to come and flush them out. The ferret man does the job in exchange for a few rabbits. He covers the entrances to the warren with nets before sending his quicksilver charges underground, like pouring brown silk into the earth. We wait. The rabbits burst from their burrows and he pounces on them. He offers me a headless rabbit, its blood scattering from the neck and thudding like dried corn in the dust by my feet.
Rabbits are easy to skin and butcher. Like bananas they seem almost designed for the purpose. The soft down of their bellies succumbs easily to a sharp knife; the offal springs freely from the gap with a flick of the wrist (be sure to retain the kidneys and liver). It is best to do this when the rabbit’s still warm. Keep the skin, which you can tan by scraping, washing and massaging slowly as you sit by a fire.
On the way home I pass a pheasant, dead by the side of the road. I’m sure it wasn’t there when I came this way earlier. I sniff it. It seems fine. I put it in my pocket and cycle off.
‘None but the adepts know what a pheasant is’ wrote Jean Brillant-Savarin in his chemico-gastronomic treatise The Physiology of Taste; Or, a Transcendental Gastronomy, ‘they only can appreciate it.’ Brillant-Savarin felt that most people ate their pheasant when it was far too fresh: ‘It is especially good when the pheasant begins to decompose’ he concludes, ‘an aroma and exciting oil is then produced, like coffee, only produced by torrefaction’.
But the well-hung pheasant has fallen out of fashion. The old stories of people hanging their birds (always by the neck) until the maggots fell freely from their guts seem repugnant to modern sensibilities. Still, I hang my bird for three days before plucking it, gutting it, and putting it in a pie, along with the rabbit. The meat is almost obscenely dark and rich, and complements the rabbit’s lean oiliness. Later, I eat the rabbit’s kidneys on toast, with lots of butter and some wilted nettles.
Painting: ‘Still Life with Pheasant’, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, c1750.