My move to the Cotswolds started in 2007 with a rented cottage for weekends away from London. It only took six months until my husband and I were seduced by the countryside into buying our own place, where we, along with legions of other Londoners, continued the weekend ritual of self-imposed exile for the next year. Then, finally, in 2009, I took a job within commuting distance of our weekend village and left the city behind for good.
It was not, however, my status as a full-time resident that made me finally feel like a local. This, instead, was marked by the evolution of my attitude towards a bird, a feathered creature that dominates the English rural landscape by virtue of both its abundance and airheadedness. I write, of course, of the pheasant.
My early encounters with the creature were marked by fawning. While out on a bike ride I would stop to admire the miniature beasts as they foraged the fields: the male with his crimson masquerade mask over a hood of teal, the female cloaked in a humbler but still handsome pattern of nutty browns. (I couldn’t help admiring mother nature for the role reversal from humans in giving the male the responsibility for seducing a mate with his sartorial flair.) But soon my fawning and photographing morphed into annoyance. Too often when caught off guard—which was, apparently, always—the pheasant would panic and scurry toward our bikes rather than away. On the steep downhills of the wolds, the pheasant became responsible for one too many near misses of going head over handlebars. The same was true for driving; these birds are drawn to rather than repelled by headlights. I suppose it was inevitable, but the time finally came when such an encounter ended badly for both bird and car. It happened too fast to be sure, but there, on the steep downhill-side of the Fossebridge dip in the moments before impact, I’m sure I spotted this death-wish-with-a-plume flying straight for the car grill.
Not long after, I had my second encounter with a dead pheasant, this time in a farmhouse kitchen where my husband and I had been invited for Sunday lunch. This weekly gathering is a fixture of English life, and a ritual I had admired since we first moved from Los Angeles to London. Now we had been invited to our first Sunday lunch since becoming residents of the Cotswolds, and we were titillated at the prospect. We joined our hosts and two other guests around a weathered pine table, where the pheasant pie was served in a puff pastry-topped casserole dish, much the same as an American chicken pot pie. When I remarked with enthusiasm to the hostess that it was the first time I had ever eaten pheasant, she dismissed the dish as an excuse to rid her freezer of them. (Hers is a sentiment I imagine is shared by hundreds of other spouses of game shooters all around the English countryside.) Despite this, I enjoyed the meal, relieved to learn there was a savory use for this majestic if dopey bird. The afternoon continued to deliver on all my expectations of a proper English Sunday lunch. By the time snowflakes started dancing outside the kitchen window, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson had walked through the door and joined us for the cheese course.
My transition from London expat to Cotswold local had been gradual, marked by subtle milestones—the first time I wore tweed without irony, for instance. But it wasn’t until I asked for a second helping of pheasant pie in that farmhouse kitchen that I felt like a real Cotswoldian for the very first time. Should you ever be in the position to make use of a pheasant that has met with an unfortunate end, here’s that recipe for pheasant pot pie:
3.5 tbsp (about half a stick) butter
1/2 lb. pancetta
4 leeks, cut into large chunks
3 celery sticks, sliced
3 carrots, halved lengthwise and sliced
2 bay leaves
3 tbsp plain flour
1 and 1/4 cups cider
2 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp double cream
6 pheasant breasts, skinned and cut into large chunks
3 tbsp wholegrain mustard
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 package of puff pastry
plain flour, for dusting
egg beaten with a little milk, to glaze
Heat the butter in a casserole dish and cook the pancetta for 1 minute until it changes color. Add the leeks, celery, carrots and bay leaves, and cook until they start to soften. Stir the flour into the vegetables until it goes a sandy color, then add the cider and reduce. Pour in the chicken stock, stir, then add the cream. Season, then bring everything to a simmer. Add the pheasant and gently simmer for 20 minutes until the meat and vegetables are tender. Stir through the mustard and vinegar, then turn off the heat and cool.
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Pour the mixture into a large rectangular dish. Roll the pastry out on a floured surface, place over the dish and trim round the edges, leaving an overhang. Brush the pastry with egg, then decorate with any leftover pastry, if you like. Sprinkle with a little sea salt. The pie can now be frozen for up to 1 month; defrost completely before baking. Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving.