We are eating pheasant. Pheasant pan-smoked over grapevine prunings. Pheasant steamed in apple cider served on a bed of sautéed windfalls. Pheasant and hazelnut terrine with sweet-and-sour figs. Pheasant carefully aged in the freezer for a year. Or two. We’re harvesting the freezer to make way for this year’s crop. In his essay Aristocracy, Emerson wrote that: ‘A creative economy is the fuel of magnificence.’
A freezer the size of a confessional laid on its side suggests magnificence, but this treasure-chest freezer is laden with an infinitude of frozen, sexless, ageless birds of unknown dates entombed with bags of unidentifiable cuts of uncertain meat, two decades of gooseberries that burst their freezer bags when Margaret Thatcher was in office, and guilt. Guilt that sticks out like the peaky feathers that can be seen through the clear film that encases the frozen birds.
In the past, I could excavate the freezer in a single frenzy of distributive virtue. My donations were welcomed by city friends who relished the authentic produits regionaux. Alas, pheasant has become as devalued as a Confederate dollar, and my lavish offerings are now greeted with regrets about the diminutive size of urban fridges.
In fact, in this disturbing age of austerity, I feel compelled to eat the birds. It is this same embrace of home economy that makes me tolerant of my son’s corner of the freezer. A convert to the church of St John, a Nose to Tail sect preached by chef Fergus Henderson, his collection of pig’s ears, trotters, snouts, spleens, hearts and tails occupies a porcine corner of their own. These body parts remind me of my grandmother, who would cook any form of roadkill as long as she’d seen the number plate of the killer. Her only culinary principle was ‘never eat the meat of an animal that eats meat’-which is why buzzards were off the menu. Still, I never saw her lick her lips over crispy pig tails.
With the Eat a Pheasant Out of Season campaign still having a month to go, the deep freeze looks empty. That’s because another long-time inhabitant of our freezer, one we’d come to know and love, is no longer there: a glorious and plump dog fox, victim of a trigger-happy City banker back in the days before the fox-hunting ban, when it was non-U to shoot a fox on a pheasant drive. The dead fox was much admired by the beaters, but the other guns gave the poor rich banker a hard time.
During the last drive, however, I put the fox in the freezer. Not out of the belief that a saltwater brine would make a fox edible (remember the dictum), but with the intention of taking him to Merlin, the local taxidermist. For the next five years, whenever someone lifted the heavy freezer lid, they swooned. Like an earl carved in stone, the fox lay in his icy tomb, eyes shut, head resting on a pillow of freezer bags filled with blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries. Where the earl’s feet might rest on a little dog, the fox’s feet lay on a leg of lamb. With respect for the dead, we gently nestled game birds, Seville oranges and bread loaves in the crevices around him.
And so the years passed. After a year or two, the renard bourguignon joke began to show signs of freezer burn. By year three, I’d gone off the idea of having a stuffed fox in the house. Then, on a September day not unlike today, I decided the time had come to give him the funeral he deserved. I dug a grave in the damp woodland earth and converted the wheelbarrow into a hearse. At the
last minute, I added my grand mother’s stole of fur pelts, three foxes clamped mouth to tail who looked rather puny compared with my majestic red fellow. I hope the little foxes kept him company as he thawed out in peace, although, frankly, life was better when he was just next door.
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