Food & Drink: I'm game, every once in a while: A young, female pheasant is the occasional luxury whose time has come again

Technically I am a country girl, but city living has softened me up. Though my family never belonged to the hunting, shooting, fishing brigade, we did brush shoulders occasionally, and sometimes a piece of game from a local shoot made its way to our kitchen (my mother was far more inclined to buy game from the covered market in Oxford or a local butcher).

As a result, pheasant, partridge et al gained an air of affordable luxury and that is still how I approach them. As only an occasional game cook, I am no great expert on the intricacies of the subject; but then I have no great desire to be landed week in week out for months on end with the proceeds of a husband's shooting trip: heaps of dead birds in need of hanging, plucking, eviscerating and so on.

Pheasant should be at its best about now. The season began on 1 October, so the first-season birds should have gained flavour and weight without becoming tough, and be ideal for roasting. By the end of January, and for the second-season birds, it is much better to casserole or pot-roast.

Once the feathers and head are off, it is not so easy to tell a pheasant's age, but if you are buying from a reputable game dealer, rely on him to provide a suitable fowl; supermarket birds are almost always young and tender. If you must check for yourself, be warned: it can be a sordid business. With a tapered matchstick, search the bird's rear end for the bursa, a small hole somewhere between the vent and the tail. In a young bird, you should be able to insert about half an inch of the matchstick into the bursa; in older, sexually mature pheasants, the bursa closes up and the matchstick will not go in. (Now you know why I prefer to accept the dealer's recommendations.)

When buying from a proper dealer, you can at least have a say in how long the bird should be hung. I like game to have at least a hint of gamey-ness; what is the point of buying a pheasant so mild in flavour that it might as well be a chicken? The other factor is its sex: hen pheasants, though smaller (serving two to three people), tend to be more juicy and tender than cock pheasants (usually enough for three to four).

Roast pheasant with oatmeal and black pudding stuffing

I love this stuffing, with its slightly knobbly texture (make sure you use oatmeal and not rolled oats) but even if you prefer some other mixture, or leave the birds unstuffed, you will find this roasting method a good one. All lean, feathered game has a tendency to dryness, so be generous with the fat, baste frequently and give adequate protection from the heat of the oven. Do not be tempted to skimp.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 2 pheasants

6 rashers streaky bacon

1 1/2 oz (45g) butter

1/2 bunch watercress (optional)

salt and pepper

Stuffing: 1 1/2 oz (45g) butter

2 leeks, white part only, chopped

4oz (110g) black pudding, skinned and diced, or crumbled

5oz (140g) medium oatmeal

2tbs chopped parsley

salt and pepper

Gravy: 3/4 pint (440ml) pheasant or chicken stock

2 1/2 oz (70ml) port

dash of lemon juice

Preparation: Make the stuffing first. Sweat leeks in butter over gentle heat in a covered pan for 5-10 mins until tender. Uncover and stir in the black pudding, oatmeal, parsley and salt and pepper. Cook for a few minutes, stirring, until oatmeal has absorbed all the fat and leek juices. Taste and adjust seasoning. Cool slightly and stuff into the pheasant cavities. Seal openings with wooden cocktail stick.

Heat oven to 190C/375F/gas 5. Smear birds with the butter, season with salt and pepper, and set in roasting tin, on their sides with one leg in the air. Roast for 15 mins.

Turn birds on to other side and roast for further 15 mins. Set them breast upwards, cover breasts with bacon and roast for 20 mins or so until cooked. Remove bacon 5 mins or so before they are done, so the birds can brown. Each time you turn them, baste with the pan juices.

Transfer pheasants to warm serving dish and keep warm. Pour off any excess fat from the roasting tin, then set on the hob. Add the stock and port and bring to the boil, scraping in all the brown gunk in the bottom of the pan. Boil until reduced by half. Add squirt of lemon juice, taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with pheasants. Tuck small tufts of watercress around the birds just before dishing up.

Pheasant with grapes and walnuts

This pheasant casserole is pure autumn at its golden, mellow best. It really belongs to a French October, when grapes and fresh walnuts are being harvested, but so what? It is good for a daydream or two and tastes wonderful.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1/2 oz (15g) butter

1tbs sunflower oil

3oz (85g) shallots, sliced

1 large pheasant

1tbs flour

1lb (450g) seedless white grapes

1 1/2 oz (45g) walnut pieces

1/4 pint (150ml) white wine

1/4 pint (150 ml) pheasant or chicken stock

bouquet garni

salt and pepper

Preparation: Halve half of the grapes, and skin and halve remainder (while the pheasant is cooking). Spread walnuts on baking sheet, and toast in hot oven (about 200C/400F/gas 6) for 4-7 mins, shaking occasionally, until browned. Tip into wire sieve and shake to dislodge papery skins. Reserve.

Cook shallots (without letting them brown) gently in butter and oil in casserole just large enough to take pheasant. Scoop out and reserve. Raise heat and brown pheasant briskly all over.

Take out of pan, and return onions to it, together with the halved, unskinned grapes and bouquet garni. Put pheasant back, breast downwards, and sprinkle with the flour.

Pour in white wine and stock, season with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer gently for 40 mins (longer if it is a tough old thing) until pheasant is cooked. Transfer to a serving dish and keep warm while you finish the sauce.

Sieve sauce, pressing the grapes to extract the last drops of flavour. Boil hard to reduce by about one-third, then add skinned grapes and walnuts, bring to boil and simmer for 1 min. Taste and adjust seasoning. Spoon some of grapes and walnuts around pheasant, and serve sauce separately.

Braised pheasant with red

cabbage and sausages

Braised red cabbage has become an established favourite (its origins are probably Germanic), and makes a good repository in which pheasant and meaty sausages can be cooked. A happy exchange of flavours takes place, and you end up with a hearty, filling meal.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 1 red cabbage,

shredded

1 large onion, sliced

2 cooking apples, peeled, cored and roughly diced

2oz (55g) raisins

2oz (55g) light muscovado sugar

6 allspice berries, lightly bruised

2 blades of mace

juice of 1 orange

1/2 pint (290ml) red wine

3fl oz (85ml) water

1 1/2 tbs sherry or red wine vinegar

1lb (450g) good pork chipolatas or other sausages

1 large pheasant, cut into 6-8 pieces

1tbs sunflower oil

salt and pepper

Preparation: In an ovenproof casserole, layer cabbage, onion, apples and raisins, sprinkling with sugar and a little salt and pepper, and tucking in spices as you go. Mix orange juice, wine, vinegar and water and pour over. Cover tightly and cook at 150C/300F/ gas 2 for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. There should be enough liquid to keep it moist, but if it threatens to dry out add a little water or another slurp of wine.

Prick sausages all over and brown in the oil over a high heat. Set aside. Brown pheasant pieces over a high heat in two batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. Reserve with the fat.

Once the cabbage has been cooking for 2 hours, bury sausages and pheasant pieces down in the mass of purple. Pour any cooking fat over the top (if you prefer, it can be left out), cover again and return casserole to oven. Cook for further 1-1 1/2 hours, until pheasant is done. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Either serve straight from the cooking pot or, for a more elegant presentation, excavate the pheasant and sausages and arrange round the edge of a serving dish with a mound of the cabbage in the centre.

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