Sophie Bagley set up her business to utilise the environmentally friendly, sustainable and healthy qualities pheasant has to offer. Sarah Todd finds out more.
In spite of having less fat and cholesterol than chicken, it is no exaggeration to say that pheasant has struggled over the years with something of an image problem.
Generations have been put off by the strong gamey taste of pheasants that have traditionally been left to hang for a long time before being prepared. Others either do not have the time or the knowledge to pluck and dress the birds before cooking.
From the garage at her North Yorkshire home, Sophie Bagley, 43, has tackled this brace of problems head on. Firstly, she does not hang her pheasants; something which gives the meat a more modern, lighter flavour. Secondly, she does all the plucking and presents her creations in an easy oven-ready formula.
Sophie fits in her business, Glorious Game, around her work as a self-employed property consultant, she says: “It all started last season when I heard about a shooting estate building an incinerator to deal with all the unwanted pheasants.
“I just thought, what a crying shame. I grew up on a farm in Scotland and such waste goes against everything my family taught me. I was brought up to believe that if you are going to kill an animal you have to show it respect and eat it.”
Among all the preconceptions Sophie has been fighting against is the belief that pheasant is a food ‘for toffs’.
“Among some people there is a feeling that ‘pheasant isn’t for somebody normal like me’ and dispelling the myths has been one of the biggest joys of getting new people to try my dishes,” says Sophie.
“It’s so rewarding when they come back to a farmers’ market the following month and tell you how much they loved it, no longer thinking because of some silly stereotype that pheasant was something they shouldn’t be eating.”
Sophie came up with the brainwave of ‘presenting pheasant in a format most people know and feel comfortable with’, such as comfort food classics like lasagne and chilli.
“I experimented on my husband, making a lasagne without telling him I’d used pheasant and he said it was the best one he’d ever had,” she says.
“He was pretty typical in saying he didn’t like pheasant because he’d had genuinely bad experiences of eating meat from birds that had been hung for a long time, with an overpoweringly strong gamey taste and smell.
“When I got his approval, I really started to believe that there was a market; especially if I could start educating people that pheasant is lower in fat but higher in protein than chicken.
“Another big confidence boost was catering for a shoot lunch for friends and being congratulated on my beef and ale pie. I thanked them very much, but said why on earth would I be serving them beef when I could get the pheasant they shot for free. That gave me that extra push to go for it.”
In addition to the image of only the upper-classes dining on pheasant, Sophie makes a point of banging the drum about the £3.5 billion and 74,000 jobs that pheasant shoots in the UK support.
“We’re not just talking about the gamekeepers and beaters here,” says Sophie
“There’s a whole knock-on of country pubs, restaurants and bed and breakfasts which would be really struggling to survive if it wasn’t for shooting.”
Glorious Game has concentrated on a cluster of North Yorkshire village markets at Hovingham, Coxwold and Sheriff Hutton to sell the ready-made meals.
They are packed-up in a cool box and ready to microwave or oven cook from frozen. Sophie even has customers come to her with their own dishes which she fills with the pheasant meal of their choice.
“Some do it to save on packaging, while others want to pass the meal off as their own. This doesn’t bother me. In fact, I find it very flattering,” she says.
Currently, Sophie collects the pheasants she uses for free from two lowland shoots in North Yorkshire, taking 200-300 birds every week for around 16 weeks.
She has got plucking them, usually while watching television on her iPad in the garage of her home near Boroughbridge, down to between two and three minutes per bird. She takes out the breast and legs and uses the carcasses for stock.
The feathers go on to be used by a company for making broaches, fascinators and hat pins, with an artist also making use of them.
As soon as the meals are made, they are frozen. Sophie also makes her own range of pheasant ‘pork’ pies and scotch eggs, as well as preparing the meat in a crispy duck style.
“My best decision has been to not hang the pheasants,” says Sophie.
“People’s palettes are different nowadays – they have had years of eating bland chicken. To expect them to tuck into and enjoy strongly tasting game is too much of an ask. It’s made much more sense to prepare the pheasant to appeal to modern palettes rather than expecting people to change the tastes they enjoy.
“As people become more interested in avoiding food waste and eating locally produced, healthy food, I can’t help but be confident about the future.”