Of all the preparation that goes into cooking a meal, there are some tasks that I enjoy more than others. Preparing food is often seen as a chore, particularly when compared with the relative pleasure of eating it, but I think any keen cook will agree with me that actually, when you really enjoy the process of working with food, you learn to relish some of the simplest kitchen tasks. Separating an egg, for example - there's something quite satisfying about rocking the golden globule of yolk from shell to shell, allowing the viscous white to trickle through your fingers into the bowl beneath. Rubbing butter into flour for a crumble, sending up delicious waves of buttery scent that hint at the promise of golden crumb forty minutes later. Melting chocolate over a pan of simmering water, watching as those dark, matt cubes collapse into a thick, glossy silken mass. Blitzing spice pastes in a little blender, watching a tangled mass of disparate ingredients harmonise into a powerfully aromatic paste of fragrant flavour.
Another of my favourites is the simple act of using a pestle and mortar. There is something wonderfully satisfying about smashing ingredients to a powder or paste with a sturdy pestle, watching them homogenise and release their individual fragrances, combining to form a harmonious and delicious whole. One of my favourite ways to cook trout is to smash up some garlic, lemon salt, fresh rosemary, thyme and olive oil in a mortar before smearing it all over the slashed skin of the fish and grilling. This concept works for most meat, fish and vegetables - grind together some garlic, oil, and seasoning, adjusting the herbs and spices for whatever you'll cover with them. Roasted winter vegetables are great with a little balsamic and smoked paprika in the mix; chicken breasts are excellent with lemon, garlic, rosemary and paprika; mackerel is delicious with capers and lemon; lamb with anchovies and parsley.
The pestle and mortar comes out whenever I cook game birds. I start with juniper, taking those squashy little berries and crushing them with the pestle until they release their heady gin-and-tonic aroma. I then add whatever herbs I feel like, usually the hardy winter varieties that whisper of roast meat and stuffing, of the Christmas table. Sage, rosemary and thyme are particularly good, their leaves smashed into the juniper. Then, the best part: butter (always the best part, right?) Softened butter goes into the mortar and is mashed together with the other ingredients and some seasoning to make a fabulous winter-scented butter.
Once you have your flavoured butter, smear it all over the skin of your game birds: partridge, pheasant and pigeon all work well. This is pretty satisfying, I won't lie. It only gets better, though: next you cover the butter in bacon. Yes, you read that correctly: bird, covered in butter, covered in bacon. Um, yes please?
Game birds have very little fat and dry out quickly, so the bacon helps keep the meat moist and protects it from the heat of the oven. OK, so there's also the added bonus that you end up with delicious crispy buttered bacon to eat with your roast bird. The butter bastes the skin along with the bacon fat, and you end up with the most delicious, juicy, tender meat. I also like to roast game birds on a bed of something to soak up the delicious juices and turn crispy and burnished in the heat of the oven. Partridges are fabulous with wedges of pear tucked in amongst them as they roast, pigeon with something like figs. Pheasant has an affinity with apples; sometimes I pot-roast a pheasant in cider with apple wedges.
In this recipe, I cooked a pheasant on a bed of autumnal things like celeriac, apple, chestnuts, celery and carrot, perfumed with sprigs of rosemary and sage. They cook into a lovely medley of sweet/earthy/tangy flavours to complement the gamey pheasant meat and crispy bacon, enriched by the melting butter from the breast of the bird, the bacon juices and a little white wine, fragrant with winter herbs.
The absolute best part of this recipe, though, is the gravy. I wrote recently about Elemental Cornish gin, otherwise known as omgbestginI'veevertastedinmylifeputitinmymouthnow, which I used in a delicious Cornish-inspired cobbler with rhubarb and strawberries. (Incidentally, no one is asking me to write about this gin, I genuinely just love it and want to tell everyone). I wanted to try it in a savoury recipe too, and game just makes sense - juniper is widely acknowledged to be one of the best flavours to accompany game. I thought the various botanicals in the gin would work beautifully in a complex gravy to accompany the pheasant; wine and marsala are often used for gravy, so why not gin? I deglazed the pheasant pan with gin then topped up with chicken stock to make a light gravy, thickened with flour and then sweetened with a couple of teaspoons of quince jelly - another fabulous partner with game, giving the gravy a delicious fruity tang (you could also use redcurrant). It was, to date, the second best gravy I've ever made (I say second best because I'm writing this on Boxing Day and the gravy I made to go with our roast goose was simply the best I am ever likely to taste in my life - it's OK I've made my peace with this fact).
Roast buttered bird, crispy bacon, sweet apples and chestnuts and earthy vegetables, and an incredibly rich, meaty, aromatic, slightly tangy gravy. This is an amazing autumnal feast and another great way to get gin out of the liqueur cupboard and into your dinner.
Plus, there's bacon. Yeah.
Bacon-wrapped pheasant with gin and quince gravy (serves 2):
1 oven-ready pheasant
50g soft butter
10 juniper berries
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
A couple of sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves removed
Salt and pepper
4-5 rashers of streaky bacon
2 cooking apples, cored and cut into wedges
Half a celeriac, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 carrot, finely sliced
1 red onion, cut into wedges
A handful of cooked chestnuts, halved
A few sprigs of rosemary and sage
A generous glug of white wine
2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp gin
250ml chicken stock
2 tsp quince jelly (or redcurrant)
First, prepare the pheasant. Crush the juniper berries in a pestle and mortar, then grind together with the rosemary and thyme. Add the butter and some salt and pepper and mash together. Spread over the breast and legs of the pheasant, then lay the bacon over the bird. Pre-heat the oven to 170C.
Put the apples, celeriac, chestnuts, celery, carrot, rosemary, sage and onion in a large ovenproof casserole dish. Season well and drizzle with a little olive oil. Pour over the wine and put the pheasant on top of the vegetables.
Cook for 45 minutes to an hour, until the juices run clear when you pierce the pheasant with a knife between the breast and thigh. Remove the pheasant when done and leave to rest. Remove the vegetables from the casserole dish with a slotted spoon, drizzle with a little oil and put in an ovenproof dish back in the oven (you can remove the bacon too and put it with the vegetables to get it really crispy, if you like). Turn the oven up to 180C and cook the vegetables for another 15 minutes or so while you prepare the gravy.
Put the casserole dish with any roasting juices on the hob. Sprinkle over the flour and whisk into the juices. Bring to the boil, then add the gin and cook over a high heat for a minute or so, whisking, to burn off the alcohol. Lower the heat and add the stock and quince jelly, then simmer for a few minutes, stirring. Taste and check the seasoning - you might want more salt, pepper or quince jelly.
Carve the pheasant and serve with the vegetables, bacon, and gravy.