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Industry: Pheasant Fad 

Wednesday, Feb 24 1999
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Life's gotta be tough as a Silicon Valley minute-magnate. Just when you've finished buying the 23-bedroom Mountain View mansion with the thought-controlled stereo system, the 72 tonnes of all-terrain vehicle, and the wood-bottomed yacht -- your stock price sextuples. So you buy a crate of milled-brass showerheads, some hand-forged garden shovels, and a cellarful of designer brandy. But upon checking the NASDAQ, you throw up your hands in despair. It seems that you've become so rich you'll never dent your net worth.

Thankfully, there are people who dedicate themselves to solving problems like these. During the past few years these kind souls have been cultivating a swiftly growing culinary fad: Scottish wild game. These pheasants, grouse, pigeons, and squab are shot by tourists on picturesque Scottish manors, scooped up by packs of rustic Scottish dogs, packaged in durable Scottish plastic, then shipped to American tables.

And in the proud tradition of designer jeans and psychotherapy, the little birds are delightfully -- and mysteriously -- dear. A pound of this gamey meat costs around 25 times the price of lean American chicken.

"They're very expensive to begin with," effuses Gary Danko, chef at Viognier in San Mateo. Better yet, Danko explains, justifying their high price requires generous dollops of sophistry.

"I find the breast is the only edible part, unless you really braise them -- meaning cook them in moist heat like red wine -- so that what little meat there is in the legs becomes tender. Sometimes you can get really old birds, or they're really gamey. It's really very, very tough leg meat. And as a rule I think people have to be willing to spit buckshot out of their mouths."

Willing? It would appear that America's nouveaux riches are just dying to chew tough bird legs and spit buckshot out of their mouths.

Williams & Sonoma offered Scottish wood pigeons in their fall catalog last year ($58 for four 4-ouncers); hen pheasants ($58 for 2 1/2 pounders); and cock pheasants (same as the hens). Restaurants like La Folie, the spiff French place on Polk Street, now feature Scottish game as a frequent specialty. And Adam Zwerling, West Coast importer for Bain's of Tarves, Scotland, says he brought in between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds of Scottish game last year and hopes to import 20,000 pounds this year.

When one takes into account that these wee birds are shot on Scottish moors by tourists pretending to be huntsmen, this 20,000-pounds-o-game figure becomes truly astounding. Just to be sure, we called John Bain, proprietor of Bain of Tarves, a major exporter of manor-killed game. According to Bain, the birds are killed by European and American guests who buy hunting holiday packages on ancient Scottish estates.

"The estate either belongs to a family that has it for many years, or it's owned by a pension fund. Many of them have holiday shooting," says Bain, donning his most charming Scottish accent. "They have either walk-up grouse shooting, which involves chasing out the birds with dogs, or driven grouse shooting, where they go out over the moors and they are either walked up and shot after the pointers make the grouse fly up."

OK, but 20,000 pounds? Might these be Gatling gun Scottish game estates?
No, the guests use ordinary shotguns, Bain assures us. The trick is in ganging up on the birds.

Teams of dogs are sent across the moors to find the birds. Scottish townspeople are hired to beat huge tarps against the moors and scare them into the air. After tourists shoot them, more people and dogs are sent to run and pick the birds up. Still more Scots are hired to hang and properly store the birds. For every hunter, there are at least a half-dozen helpers, Bain says.

"It's probably just as exciting watching all the different people involved in the thing and watching the dogs as it is to be shooting," Bain says.

Indeed.
"It's all natural, it's wild, and the best selling point is that we can call it free range," importer Zwerling explains.

John Pauley, sous-chef at La Folie, looks down at two reddish lumps vacuum-sealed in thick plastic on the kitchen's white lucite chopping block. One lump, a partridge, is about the size of a baseball. The other, a pheasant, is cantaloupe-sized. Both suffer the sort of opaque sheen characteristic of the past-due cuts in the Cala Foods butcher case. But this humble appearance hides the soul of haute cuisine, Pauley says. Once you sprinkle the birds with juniper berries and broil them with $65-an-ounce truffles -- well, you really have something.

Better yet, you and your date are out a couple hundred bucks for a complete meal.

Pauley prepared some Scottish pheasant for a pair of guests just last week. A delightful experience, he said.

"To be able to cook something that was running through the woods of Scotland that someone had the decency to shoot for me, that's really something," Pauley says. "It's such a wonderful, natural product that I don't have to dress it up with a bunch of foo-foo stuff.

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Matt Smith

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