I am not here to get embroiled in an anti-hunting argument. I spent much of my youth fighting the side of the animals. As a now grown-up ‘food person’, I think it is important to experience as many different things as you can. With the benefit of experience and a slightly more logical view of the world than I had when I was fourteen, I think to be given a brace of game birds is a real gift rather than a dirty little secret. I grew up living next to a farm so I am used to hearing the familiar sounds of the fox hunters (which I am opposed to) and to the shots that accompany the short season of game hunting. Whilst I cannot see the pleasure in shooting any bird or animal, my justification for eating the cull of a shoot is this: the birds have lived an entirely free range life. Once they reach a sort of maturity (feathers still a bit rough looking but fully grown), partridges and pheasants are released from the comfort and security of their holding pens into the wild where they begin to fend for themselves. Drive along any country road in Essex and you will experience the slalom of avoiding pheasants and partridges darting across the road, as surely as if they were kamikaze pilots, dive bombing the enemy. The only difference being, the birds don’t actually want to kill anyone, they just have zero road sense.
The point I’m trying to put across is that game birds, that are eventually shot and eaten, are really no different to chickens (whether organic or battery) that are slaughtered and then eaten. If you are a meat eater you must be prepared to accept this fact. The only difference is that chickens come ready drawn and plucked whereas game birds are uneviscerated and fluffy.
I was recently given a brace of partridge from a shoot held near where I grew up. My mum had them hanging up in her garage and every time she walked past them she shuddered and said “I don’t like to see them.” I, on the other hand, was thrilled although less enamoured with the idea of plucking and gutting.
When I was a child and we didn’t have much money, the local farmer would give us pheasants and partridges (back then, they weren’t quite as popular as they are now). I remember standing on a stool at the draining board with my mum and we would clean them bald of their once resplendent feathers, so resonant of autumn. My favourite job was pulling out the entrails - a gory little thing I was - and I would enjoy pulling the tendons in the neck to make the feet twitch. Back then I didn’t realise that everything should be allowed a certain degree of dignity, even in death.
Anyway, at some point, my mother got a bit squeamish about pheasant and game in general, and we stopped eating them. She is certain that the older you get, the fussier you get but I am railing hard against this factually unsound statement. After all, this year alone I have overcome several food phobias of my own – lamb, raw tomatoes, fish roe, dried fruit and chicken livers (although, I have yet to actually eat the livers). I am still unable to drink milk though. We’ll save that mountain of achievement for next year.
So, our two partridges. There they hang, all sunken eyed and ruffled feathers, their feet still bearing the mud and grass that they would have mulched around in whilst alive. I feel terribly sad as I look at them but then I am overcome by the same feeling that my forbearers would have had: to make use of what the land provides us with. Nature doesn’t endow us with food neatly packaged and trussed and clean and pink: someone has to prepare this for us. The two partridges that hang before me are what we eat everyday but in their most natural form.
Of course, I am unable to prepare them. My husband, the ex-nurse, is always up for a challenge. He reminds me that when he was at medical school, he would go and eat fried chicken straight after human anatomy. I eyeball him curiously as he whips out the gore from the plucked partridges. They have been hanging for six days. The smell is pungent and gaseous. I haven’t smelt that smell since I was a gleeful child eviscerating pheasants but I recognise it instantly. We throw the organ meat onto the fire with the dogs snapping at our feet: “me, me!” It must smell unbearably good to them, wild beasties that they are.
My mum rinses them under the sink. She has betrayed her previous promise that she would never touch them again and helped Paul to pluck them. She is far quicker than him.
I put them, cold, pink and pimply from the water and the plucking, on a plate and truss them gently. Naked, they are tiny little birds, enough meat there on the plate only for two.
I am buoyed with enthusiasm following the Guinea Fowl that I ate at the weekend so I am looking forward to cooking the partridge. I will freeze them for now though until I have found a recipe that is deserving of them - those tiny birds who lived their lives as all animals should: in freedom.