I’ll never forget my first roadkill. It was a cock pheasant, just a bundle of feathers that had bounced off the A697 to Kelso. I jumped out of the car, looked furtively around and then crouching down took a long sniff. It smelled fine to me. I took a stick and poked the breasts, the flesh felt firm. I peered closer, the eyes had not yet been plucked out by a crow, so he can’t have been here long. I looked around again, grabbed the legs and ran back to the car.
Back at home I took an ordinary knife to slice along the bone and remove the breasts. It was as easy as handing over my debit card in the shop – except this was free. Within minutes I had a couple of pink breasts that looked like they came straight out of a packet. No blood or feathers, nothing to remind you where the meat might have come from. No lead pellets, like a shot pheasant. No breast blisters from ammonia burn, like an intensively farmed chicken.
I made a stir fry using a Jamie Oliver recipe. It tasted delicious, conventional and unthreatening. I ate it in front of the telly, feeling strangely empowered.
After that first find, it became easy to spot roadkill. It is just a matter of paying attention, knowing the roads where quarry is more likely. The best are narrow country lanes where it is easy to pull over and stop the car. I have only done it a few times but every time I get that feeling of glee, like you get when you win a fiver on a scratchcard or find a bargain in the sales.
I became interested in roadkill as part of the research for my book, The Ethical Carnivore. It seemed to me it was the most ethical meat I could eat. It was dead anyway, I was just using meat that would otherwise go to waste. I was advised on how to identify and prepare roadkill by Alison Brierley. I met the blonde dreadlocked ‘tribal artist’ at Edinburgh Science Festival, where she was demonstrating how to cook grey squirrel and she invited me to come ‘foraging’ with her. I liked Alison’s attitude, her joyful flouting of convention.
It is against the law to pick up anything you have run over yourself and, of course, any farm animal or pet you find should be reported to the owner. But Alison says wild animals – and who’s to say a pheasant isn’t wild – is fair game. She taught me a handy mnemonic, that I have explained further in my book, that helps you remember the basic safety checks you must make before even considering picking up roadkill. It is all common sense, based on avoiding animals that are too damaged, old or could be contaminated in other ways.
It may sound shocking but you will be surprised at how many people have approached me after readings to say that they too enjoy the occasional ‘flatmeats’. They are not hippies outside the system, they are normal country folk who just know a free meal when they see one.
It is a peculiarly British attitude, to refuse to talk about something a little embarrassing, to pretend no one does this terrible shocking thing. And then behind the scenes get on with it because it makes sense, it avoids waste and it’s not harming anyone. In my book I explored some of the more esoteric theories about sourcing meat for ourselves, the need to connect to nature, to death, to our inner ‘hunter gatherer’. There were elements of truth in all of them but really it came down to learning a skill and taking responsibility for doing it myself. I now carry a bin bag in the car, just in case I see dinner on the side of the road.
Roadkill pheasant with wild cherry and raspberry coulis
This is not the most complicated recipe. I actually came up with it on a camping trip, where we had limited ingredients and had not expected to come across any meat or wild fruits.
2 pheasant breasts (roadkill)
2 handfuls of wild cherries
1 handful of wild raspberries
Slug of oil
Drizzle of honey
Preparation and cooking time: 20 minutes
So you get your money’s worth, I will start with an explanation on how to skin out the breasts of a pheasant. It is possible to pluck the breast so you get the skin as well, but it is easier and quicker to do it this way – especially for roadkill. Just cut into the skin, trying not to puncture the flesh, along the breast bone, making an upside down T shape. Pull away the skin until you reveal the full breast. Then take the knife and cut down one side of the breast bone, following the bone down and out to the edge of the bird until you have a complete breast. Repeat on the other side.
Heat some oil in a heavy bottomed pan until it is hot. I used a slug of olive oil but a bit of butter would probably help. Fry the breasts for about three minutes each side until they are turning brown and the juices are running clear.
De-stone a couple of handfuls of the cherries and put them in a pan with just a sprinkling of raspberries, add a little water and drizzle over honey. Bring to the boil and simmer until it is a soft puree.
Serve the hot pheasant breasts with a little salad and drizzle over the coulis. It looks beautiful, like the starter at a fancy restaurant. The bitter sweet cherry sauce and the strong taste of raspberries compliment the pheasant, bringing out its subtle gamey flavour.