Shooting star is also a dab hand at cooking game
Countess "Pinky" le Grelle, from Colquite Estate in North Cornwall, knows her way around a pheasant. Although clay pigeons are her usual target – she has competed for more than 40 years, 20 of them on the Great Britain shooting team – she has brought home countless birds, many from her own family-run commercial shoot in Washaway near Bodmin.
Pheasant, she says, is succulent, flavourful, and versatile, if you know how to play to its strengths.
Using more game is on my "to do" list. I am given the occasional pheasant, but I am daunted by the prospect of plucking and don't have much confidence in my ability to cook it well. I need a masterclass.
"If you are in a hurry or you have several pheasants to do, you can just take off the crown," Pinky tells me, as we walk towards the main house of the Colquite Estate, a characteristic Cornish rectangle of slate and granite. "That way you don't have to pluck it at all – you just peel back the skin around the breast and cut around it."
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Pinky, cocker spaniels frisking around her, is joined by her 34-year-old son Roderick, who is slowly taking over the 500-acre, family run commercial shoot next to the river Camel
"Many people think you are supposed to hang pheasants a long time, but you don't have to – they taste wonderful fresh," he tells me.
"The key is timing. Wrap it in newspaper and put it in the bottom of the fridge, and pluck it 24 to 48 hours after it has been shot. That's when the skin will best release the feathers."
We go inside, where two Michigan blueback crosses are lying on the kitchen table in all their glossy beauty. Pinky starts on one breast, holding the skin with one hand and giving short, sharp tugs with the other. Some feathers come out easily in clumps, others are stubborn. Proximity to a large-mouthed bin is a must when plucking.
"You can tell this is a young bird, look at its spurs," she said, holding the bird's leg. Its partner has longer, heavier spurs – last year's model.
Pinky is a combination of elegant and down-to-earth. She is chatty in soft-spoken tones; she slips into French when she talks to her partner Michel, who sits at the table doing paperwork. For years, Michel drove a refrigerated van to Belgium every week filled with Colquite pheasants; but recently they have gone to a British game dealer. Pinky uses a sharp knife to sever the pheasant's head and neck, then snaps the wing joints and cuts them off using kitchen shears. She turns the pheasant over and starts in on its back, plucking the feathers against the grain.
"Some people put a bird in boiling water first, but I don't," she said, finishing with the tail. She holds the bird with its rear end facing her. With a knife she makes a lateral slit either side of the backside, and uses a spoon to scrape the innards into the bin.
Now the bird is nearly ready, except for the small fiddly feathers. One method is to attack these with tweezers, but Pinky uses another: a candle. She passes the bird over the candle and the down sizzles off.
Within half an hour, we are looking at something much more familiar – a prepared bird. Now on to the fun part – cooking. We are embarking on Pinky's own recipe for Thai-style pheasant, a tried-and-tested dish that has delighted distinguished guests – Their Royal Highnesses Prince Michael of Kent and his wife demanded the recipe after Pinky prepared it for a sporting lunch (albeit with chicken).
Pinky seasons the body cavity with salt and pepper, then spoons in blobs of Italian soft dessert cheese, marscapone, and closes it with a toothpick (actually, after a fruitless toothpick hunt, she uses a hairpin).
"Pheasant is a lean bird, and it won't stand up to conventional roasting," she says. "I like to fill it up either with marscapone or Philadelphia soft cheese, to keep the juices inside."
In an oval casserole, she heats a generous blob of butter with some vegetable oil to keep it from burning, and browns the pheasant on all sides. Once it is browned, she adds classic Thai ingredients – coconut milk, lemongrass, Tom Kha spice paste, and the juice and zest of two limes, along with some chicken stock. She puts on the lid and places in a hot oven for 30 minutes.
While we wait, it's time for a strong European-style coffee and a chat. I want to hear about Pinky's shooting career, which began where she grew up, in Belgium (le Grelle is her maiden name. Oh, and her first name is actually Diane – but Pinky was the nickname that stuck).
"My father wanted me to go game shooting with him, so he took me to a shooting school," she said. To say that Pinky was a natural was an understatement. "Within two weeks I was shooting the Belgian championships, using three different guns because I didn't have one.
"I was lucky to be sponsored by a Belgian gun maker when I started my competitive career, as I couldn't have afforded it otherwise.
"When I was 20 I went to the European Championships in Sporting in Portugal, chaperoned by my father, where I won a bronze medal. One year later I won the Championships.
"My mother thought that would be an end to it. But I thought, I'm not giving up now, no way. Even now I think part of me keeps competing because I can hear her voice telling me to stop. She didn't think it was very ladylike."
Pinky shot for Belgium for 20 years, during which time she equalled the skeet shooting world record for women. She was ready for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, with ticket and uniform bought, when Belgium made a last-minute decision not to send her, having discovered there was not a separate women's class in her discipline.
Pinky was half British through her mother, so it was to Britain that she turned after this great disappointment, and we sent her to Barcelona in 1992.
Although she did not come home with a medal that time, she went on to be a cornerstone of the Great Britain shooting team for two decades, and has won both European and world titles.
She and Michel have lived in Cornwall for 20 years; besides helping look after Colquite's shooting lunches and the lodges, Pinky's other passion is designing and making jewellery, using precious and semi-precious stones. Recently, she has also taken an interest in the budding career of young shooting hopeful James Rounsevell, after reading a Western Morning News feature by Simon Parker.
Pinky suffered a blow this past autumn when she discovered, after prolonged ill health, that she had kidney cancer. Even though one doctor told her that her chances of survival were around 20%, she refuses to be dismayed. "I can't wait to go back to shooting," she says. "I want to prove that you can be 60 and you can come back from cancer, and you can compete. There are so many people who are worse off than I am. My message is: don't think you're past it because you've had the cancer, and don't give up.
"I am lucky to have a lot in my life, and that is what you cling to when you feel low, and when your future is uncertain. I always go to bed with a project in mind, thinking about my shooting, or my jewellery. You have to have a dream."
The dish is ready, and its aroma fills the room. Pinky brings it out and removes the pheasant on to a cutting board. Into the sauce she stirs a cup of cream and a generous handful of chopped fresh coriander. She removes the bird's legs and thighs and slices the breast parallel to the breast bone, like carving a turkey.
"You want the breast in slices, not chunks," she says. She fans the slices on to a plate with rice, spoons the sauce over the top, and garnishes with coriander and a slice of lime.
It is properly delicious – not just "delicious for pheasant". The meat is succulent and flavourful. The sauce's rich sweetness is cut with aromatic notes of the lemongrass and Thai spices, and the bright citrus of the lime dances on the tongue.
"Bon appetit!" smiles the countess, brushing a few stray feathers off her shirt.