The pheasant originated in Asia. Many species of this bird still live wild there in forests and on the wooded plains. It is known as a terrestrial bird because it does not fly very often, and never far. It pecks at everything during the day, whether seeds or worms, because it is an omnivore. It perches in the trees at night to escape from its enemies.
Pheasants arrived in Europe in ancient times. The Colchis pheasant received its name from the Kingdom of Colchis, a realm that existed more or less in what is now Georgia: it was discovered there by the Argonauts, heroes of Greek mythology.
The Phasis was the great river of Colchis, and this is the name the Ancient Greeks gave to the bird. The Romans called it phasianus (used as its scientific name today), from where the word pheasant originated.
The first pheasants arrived in Europe towards the 11th century. They became acclimatized and reared, and were particularly prized by knights (probably because of their colored feathers). Pheasantries were created on the estates of nobles. Saint Louis had pheasants introduced in the Bois de Vincennes.
This game bird was always highly appreciated over the centuries. At the time peacocks were very popular. Pheasants were cooked because their feathers were almost as beautiful, and both birds were served with their feathers. Taillevent, and later Carême left a large number of recipes.
The pheasant was introduced in the United States once in 1790, but unsuccessfully. A century later, another attempt was made in Oregon, where it became adapted to its new environment, and pheasant farms became as common in North America as they were in Europe.
A cock pheasant weighs 1.4 kg on average, while a female weighs around 900 g. The female is always finer and more tender and has better meat than the male.
A young pheasant is distinguished by its poorly developed spurs and the flexibility of its wishbone: its meat is more tender.
The source of the pheasant, whether wild or reared, is essential. Wild pheasants are obviously of better quality than reared ones. Reared birds have yellow fat and lighter, whiter meat, while wild birds have darker, redder meat and a stronger flavor.
Pheasants are sold intact with their feathers, either fresh or frozen after having been slaughtered on farms. A pheasant that has not been frozen has dry feathers that are well attached to its skin. The skin of a thawed pheasant is slightly damp: this can be verified by running a finger under the feathers.
The origin of the pheasant must be marked on the label. As with all game birds, European legislation is very strict.
Whole pheasants are also sold plucked and with the insides cleaned, or ready to cook.
They can also be found quartered and deep frozen.
A whole frozen pheasant should be thawed slowly.
Then, as with fresh pheasant, it must be plucked, dressed, gutted, and cleaned.
A pheasant can be roasted (particularly if it is young), barded and well watered, perhaps stuffed, and can be cooked in stew, as a whole bird or cut into pieces. It is often necessary to marinate an old bird.
It can be accompanied with a lot of different seasonal vegetables: celeriac, chestnuts, sauerkraut, cabbage, etc. It also goes well with fruit (apples, pears, plums), and, of course, truffles.
A young pheasant should be cooked as quickly as possible. It can be kept in the refrigerator or cool room at 4ºC for up to 48 hours, especially if it is a reared bird.
Older and wild birds may be kept for longer, 3–4 days.
Pheasants are very high in protein and low in fat (especially wild birds). They also contain B group vitamins, and lots of minerals.
However, the way it is cooked will obviously modify a bird's nutritional qualities.
Like all game meat, pheasant is quite high in purines, and therefore is not recommended for people who suffer from gout.
There are some fifty species of pheasants in the world, the result of crossbreeding.
Among the most common are:
. Colchis pheasant: its plumage is very colorful, but its head and neck are dark green. The skin around its eyes is bright red, its body brown, and its breast purplish brown. The female is brown all over.
. Ring-necked pheasant: a sub-species of the Colchis pheasant, this bird has blue-green plumage with a white ring around its neck.
. Green or Japanese pheasant: green head, blue throat, purple neck. The rest of its plumage is green with blue highlights, and the breast feathers are lighter. The female is a tawny color.
. Common pheasant: this is the most common variety, the result of crossbreeding between Colchis and green pheasants, producing many sub-species with varied plumage in green and brown. It is the most commonly reared variety.