A Pheasant on Your Table
I was all prepared to spend this column basting the humble turkey with encomia. After all, the bird with the pop-up thermometer is the one most of us dress for the Christmas table. But Fate intervened in a phone call. It was my friend Vangelis in a culinary quandary. "Someone gave me a pheasant, and I want to cook it for Christmas. Please find me a recipe." It was all I needed to change course myself. The next day off I went to the game purveyor in his neat white stall, right in the heart of the Central Market. Mine would be a tame one, farm-raised and mild, compared to Vangelis' hunted bird. Nevertheless, the regal pheasant, wild or not, is much better suited than the pedestrian turkey for a holiday feast. After all, this beautifully plumed bird has been king of wildfowl and center of sumptuous feasting from at least the time of the Romans, yet it's played a part in our own history, culinary and non, albeit indirectly.
An ancient story goes that King Croesus, seated on his jewel-encrusted throne, bedecked with a diamond-studded crown and dressed in gold-spangled robes received Solon in state and asked him if he had ever seen such sumptuous attire before. "Yes", replied the wise king. "I have seen pheasants."
Later, the Romans, never passing up a chance to display opulence of any kind, found particular opportunity in the way they cooked the beautifully plumed pheasant: by skinning it carefully, roasting it, then tucking it back into its brilliant feathers. Later eaters of the pheasant were equally ostentatious when serving up the bird. In the Middle Ages, in France, when pheasants were served (on castle tables, that is, because, despite its plentiful supply in the wild, this bird was rarely, if ever, a feast for commoners), they were done so with their beaks and legs gilded.
The noble bird, king of feathered game, was fit not only for noble consumption. In the middle Ages it became ritual for the aristocracy to swear by the pheasant. The noble bird, in other words, was considered a fit witness to the pledges made by the noblest specimens of the human race! If only words weren't cheap. Consider this: the most lavish feast in history may well be the one conducted in that most ignoble of years, 1453. It was the inspiration and invitation of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, and has come to be known as the Banquet of the Vow of the Pheasant. If those who had made their noble promises with the noble bird as witness had only kept them, our own history may have turned out completely differently. Incensed over the infidel's capture of Constantinople, Philip Duke of Burgundy invited his knights to table. Once seated, a long file of servitors marched, each carrying a salver on which a live pheasant was tethered. They stationed themselves before the knights, each of whom swore solemnly by the pheasant and before God, to abstain from whatever action his imagination could conjure up, until Constantinople had been recaptured by the Turks. This well-fed Christian mobilization was the sensation of western Europe, at least momentarily, but after the fevered emotions of the moment, fed by much good food and wine, had faded away, sober second thought prevailed, and in the end neither the Good Duke himself nor any of his knights judged it expedient to do anything which might annoy the infidels. Thus the Banquet of the Vow of the Pheasant must be set down as a failure, unless of course Philip's real aim was to demonstrate that the Duke of Burgundy was richer and more powerful than the king of France, then Charles VII, whose control over his dominions had dwindled so much that he was referred to, sarcastically, as the king of Bourges (a tiny community in southeast France, not too far from Orleans). Thus goes the tale of the pheasant's most famed feast.
For our purposes here, memories of this year's Christmas feast will only be kinder if I answer my friend Vangelis' original question, the catalyst for this piece to begin with. How to cook a pheasant?
A Note of Pheasant:
Pheasant, farm-raised or wild, is probably the most popular game bird. The domesticated birds are milder than those hunted in the wild. Farm-raised pheasant has pinkish white meat that is slightly darker in the legs and thighs. It has a delicate flavor and texture. Wild pheasant has a rich, deep flavor, and the more it ages the gamier it becomes. Both, though, tend to be very lean, and therefore require barding--roasting with strips of lard or bacon--in order for the bird to retain its moisture. It is important not to overcook the bird, lest it become very dry and tasteless. One pheasant usually doesn't weigh more than about a kilo to a kilo and a half- enough meat for two to three people at most.
First: How to Bard a Bird
You'll need 60-70 grams of bacon. After trussing the bird (tying its legs and wings together so that they don't spread open and burn at the tips during roasting), slip strips of bacon between the breast and legs to cover the breast. Alternatively, cover the entire trussed bird, legs and all, with bacon and tie securely into place, making sure all exposed surfaces are blanketed. Keep in mind that barded birds won't brown. To remedy this, remove the bacon 10 minutes before the bird is finished roasting.
There is another, simpler method to ensure that the bird retains its moisture. Rub the entire surface with softened butter (not margarine, because you'll sacrifice flavor). First, gently loosen the skin around the breast and thighs and work the softened butter under the skin, then outside the bird, just before roasting.
Meat: How Greeks Prepare It
Greeks enjoy a dubious claim to fame as the EU's largest consumers of red meat, and that in a country, where until just a generation ago meat was an expensive rarity, savored at best once a week, but more likely even less frequently, a few times a month and on holidays.