It’s one of those gray and nearly winter days in northern California. The sky roars furious and dark; it rains in full, soft drops and then the clouds part, revealing a sky brilliant blue, its color reflected off the wet streets. The chilly air smells of wet leaves, while smoky fireplaces burn summer’s cobwebs out of their chimneys. I pull on a thick sweater and knit hat for the drive to a favored Italian market for good, green Tuscan olive oil and a big hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano. An early morning pheasant hunt filled my game bag, and rich stew and stock now perfumes my little cottage.
I rose before dawn and went hunting by myself. I recently read a delightful book of essays on hunting gifted to me by one of my hunting mentors. He’s an outstanding shot who’s very quick on the draw, but during our last outing together, he bogarted all of the birds. It was then I decided I prefer hunting alone. Truth be told, I wanted to go by myself. I didn’t want to take turns shooting. I didn’t want to listen to anyone repeatedly tell me how to do something. I didn’t want anyone interrupting the quiet solitude of Nature’s morning.
Years ago, I hired a trainer for a couple of shooting lessons, before bad habits became ingrained. Learning to shoot was similar to learning to drive a clutch. Initially, I stalled out as many times as birds got lucky, but then something just clicked in my mind, and I owned it.
My guide that long ago day was an older man, tall and heavy set with jowly cheeks, who smoked a good cigar as we walked. He talked of his hunting trips, training his dogs, and his good fortune to have retired from a desk job to hunt full-time for a living. While the young guys at the pheasant clubs eye me warily, the older men could not be more solicitous. Seems the old guard feel under constant threat to give up their arms, their ways of life, their hunts. Several old men explained to me that it’s women and children, by their enthusiastic participation, who will save the art of hunting; new blood to preserve the ritual of its spilling. One old geezer, escorted by a pair of yellow Labs, even offered me a couple of his birds on a day I returned from the fields empty-handed. I declined, wanting to bag, dress and cook my own. Often times, I return home with an empty game bag, but I never mind. Hunting and fishing and playing golf have more in common than scoring; it’s about being outside, communing with nature, bonding with your comrade in-arms (or in-clubs), breathing fresh air and taking in the sky. It’s always a magnificent outing regardless of outcome.
This morning, I made a huge mug of Jasmine Pearl tea, loaded my shotgun and hunting bag into car, put the top down and the heater on, and drove the hour north to the fields, watching the sun rise an ashy rose. I’ve only hunted bird on private reserves and at clubs, but today’s walk was on 15,000 acres of public lands leased to corn farmers, and managed by Fish and Game. Field upon field of low corn stubble, separated by wide ditches nursing pools of brackish water, create perfect hideouts for birds, with plenty of corncob remnants on which for them to feast and fatten. The pre-dawn air was heavy with dew; ideal conditions for hunting game bird, as their scent lingers on the wet grasses, making the dogs crazed. I traded a couple of very good bottles of Barolo for the company of a German short hair, the dog of a friend’s friend. The two of us hiked for miles. Nearby pastures held grazing sheep serenading us with an occasional bleat. It was a gorgeous early winter day in typical northern California style – the upcoming light reflecting off the hills, the autumn patchwork still present.
The ringed-neck pheasant is a wonder of color, its plumage deep, rich hues only Nature can produce. The bird was first imported to the American East Coast from Asia in the early 1700s. George Washington had pheasants roaming Mount Vernon, and Ben Franklin’s son-in-law brought them to his home in New Jersey. Their population exploded in the late 1800s when a hunting enthusiast, a consul to China, released several dozen Chinese ring-necks into Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The birds, however, had a tough go of it in the 1960s and 1970s, as ag lands were stripped for monoculture or development. The government got involved and Reagan signed into law The Conservation Reserve Program, aimed at re-establishing land cover to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce loss of wildlife habitat for endangered and threatened species. Thanks in part to voluntary participation by farmers and land owners, who plant acres of native grasses on ag lands, the CRP is the largest private-lands conservation program in the United States, benefitting many species of wildlife including upland birds, waterfowl and deer. And pheasant. No other game species introduced to the United States has thrived as well.
One of the first mornings in forever that wasn’t pouring a cold, unremitting rain, the ground was now a spongy mud beneath my new Danner hunting boots. We hiked through nasty, brambly brush, my legs covered in small, thorny burrs, which would leave their marks and scratches for days. The dog, a kindly old girl oddly named Poacher, suddenly stuck her freckled snout into the air and began to dance as if accompanying an unheard tune. Back and forth, she swept the field in front of us, hot on the scent of a bird on this chilly morning; an incredible sight attributable to equal parts genetics, breeding and training. The dog finally surprised a fat pheasant tucked behind a clump of grasses, flushing him quickly into the air. Pheasants are fast; their spindly legs often sprint them into the next field before I’m able to even sight them with the tip of my shotgun.
I bagged two beautiful male pheasants as the sun came up. Poacher retrieved them, but it took a bit of work, cunning and handfuls of biscuits to get her to drop the birds so I could tuck them into my game bag. I laughed out loud and cursed her Master, now understanding the origin of her name.
Instead of plucking the pheasants, I carefully peeled back their coats of feathers with the sharp point of my hunting knife, heavily salted each skin, and hung them on the front porch to dry. An enormous cast iron meat hook I found while scouring a flea market in southern France hangs from a brick wall in my tiny kitchen; the dried pelts are destined to dangle from their sharp spikes.
The 40 species of pheasant, all originating in Asia and Asia Minor, are related to partridge, quail, grouse and guinea-fowl, all of which encompass the order Galliformes, (heavy-bodied, ground feeding birds), and all of which are, not incidentally, delicious. I slowly roasted both birds with herbs stealthily pilfered from a neighbor’s fancy raised beds: fresh thyme, its delicate branches covered in emerald green; a few leathery leaves of sage, and a handful of overgrown Italian parsley fronds. Cooked to barely medium rare, I separated the meat from bone, tossing the stripped carcasses into a huge enamelware stockpot, a sixteenth birthday present from my beloved Italian grandmother. I added a roughly chopped mirepoix, covered it all with water and wine and a palm-full of whole, black Tellicherry peppercorns, and set it to boil.
Pheasant stock makes me weak kneed.
I shredded the cooled meat, poaching it in its pan jus with a wee bit of cubed pancetta and cipollina onion, a showering of flaky sea salt, and a generous hit of Oloroso sherry. While that goodness gently bubbled, I diced root vegetables for texture and color, adding carrots, celery and rutabaga. Gleefully, I blew the dust off the hand-crank pasta machine and rolled out long sheets of fresh macaroni, cutting them into large pocket squares.
I took a break from the kitchen, stepping outside to watch the shifting gray sky, smoke a bit of Mendocino green bud and contemplate the evening ahead. My dinner guests were old friends and food people. He is gay and riotous and whip smart. She created and sold a food-line, is dyed blonde and works out vigorously, and cannot hold her wine. She takes cabs every time she goes to dinner and her stories are sometimes deliciously scandalous.
I grated a huge bowl of Parmesan and set a loaf of crusty ciabatta from a revered Sonoma bakery on an old breadboard. A hunk of gooey Robiola, a triple cream cheese from Piedmont, had been coming up to temperature for the past couple of hours. Bitter Italian rapini was sautéed with garlic and spicy chili peppers, dried from the summer garden’s abundance.
The pheasant stew was spooned over the handkerchief pasta, which heartbrokenly, was just a tad too cooked. But with a sprinkle of Maldon salt and a splash of Tuscan oil, the flavors were a fine tribute to the birds.
Catherine brought two apple tarts with enviably perfect crusts, and a jar of dense Mexican caramel sauce she made. We drank Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc and an old Matanzas Merlot, which David insisted on decanting.
The Chinese recognized the beauty and delicacy of the pheasant more than 3,000 years ago, believing they represented prosperity and good fortune. The Romans, true gourmands all, introduced the pheasant into Western Europe. Julius Caesar brought the bird along when he invaded England in the first century B.C., also believing the pheasant auspicious. Raising our nearly drained glasses, we toasted the incredible bird, which nourished us this nearly winter evening.