The pheasant, now a bird hunted for sport the world over, was once believed to have come from a Caucasian kingdom rich in gold. Here, myths about the Argonauts and fowl, plus a recipe for you to prepare.
A photo of the roast bird with the sauce and some celery greens. Quite the sight!
The tale of the Golden Fleece — or Jason and the Argonauts — is one of the better-known Greek myths and one of my personal favorites. I feel like putting myself on my storytelling mettle today, so I’ll give a summary in case you aren’t familiar with the myth.
Jason was the son of Aeson, the rightful heir to the throne of Iolcus, a city in Greece. Aeson’s half-brother, Pelias, usurped the throne, locked Aeson away, and upon receiving a prophecy from the Delphic Oracle, sent Jason on an impossible quest so he couldn’t challenge Pelias’s kingship. He would have to steal the Golden Fleece, a famously metallic winged ram. Jason gathered a crew of legendary heroes (Hercules, Orpheus, et al.) and boarded his ship, the Argo. Just as they departed, the Argonauts were pitted against monsters like Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, and Talos, a bronze giant.
The story is great because of the awesome tasks Jason and his crew have to overcome — much like the Odyssey or the Labors of Hercules. But I find the destination especially fascinating. The Fleece hung in the faraway land of Colchis. Corresponding with the coast of present-day Georgia, Colchis lay at the eastern end of the Black Sea. Greek sailors had long been familiar with the waters of the Black Sea, calling it the Εὔξεινος Πόντος (Euxeinos Pontos), or Hospitable Sea, for the smooth sailing they experienced.
The Greeks, then, were enthralled by something else besides its location, or even the foreign culture of the Kartvelian tribes living on those shores. Colchis was fantastically rich — in honey, timber, and iron, but most importantly in gold.
An epitaph once (falsely) attributed to Aristotle states that Aeetes, the Colchian king, ruled over a land that was πολυχρύσος (polychrysos), or rich in gold. In the whole of Greek literature, this epithet was awarded only to Mycenae, Babylon, and Sardis, legendary cities of antiquity. So Colchis was in elite company, and it certainly impressed the Greeks and Romans with its natural opulence.
Each teller of the Golden Fleece story has added increasingly sensational details about Colchis. Some are fairly tame: Apollonius of Rhodes tells that the Colchian king, Aeetes, wore a helmet of gold, and Lycophron of Chalcis tells that Medea, Aeetes’ daughter, presented the Argonauts with golden items upon their arrival. Boldly, Mimnermus describes a golden palace in the kingdom.
Grander still, several authors like Strabo go so far as to claim the rivers flowed with gold, leading some modern scholars to postulate the Golden Fleece was actually a sheepskin used to sift gold from river water. Possible in my opinion, but alas, I digress!
Besides gold, something else dazzling was said to have come from the rivers of Colchis: the pheasant. Much like lovage, the name of this bird hints at its believed origin. Through Old French, we’ve gotten the word “pheasant” from the Latin phasianus, itself from the Greek φασιανός (phasianos), meaning “of the Phasis.” The Phasis was the name of a river in Colchis (now called the Rioni) whence the pheasant was thought to have come to Europe. A quote from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History supports the bird’s Asian origin:
In Colchis, there is the pheasant, a bird with two tufts of feathers like ears, which it drops and raises every now and then…
The feather-eared Colchian pheasant Pliny was describing would have been the ring-necked or common variety (Phasianus colchicus). Though it’s been introduced around the world (coming to North America in the late 18th century), the pheasant first became known to classical writers on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Even after accounts of this brilliant bird were recorded, the pheasant never was domesticated. The same holds true today: most pheasants, including the one I used for this recipe, are wild.
Just because the Romans never took to breeding pheasants doesn’t mean they didn’t eat them. Recipes not for the bird itself, but for sauces to go with it, appear in Apicius multiple times, along with even more exotic fine feathered friends like flamingos. Here is one of those sauce recipes, taken from the pages of Apicius:
Ius in diversis avibus. Piper, cuminum frictum, ligusticum, mentam, uvam passam enucleatam aut damascena, mel modice. Vino myrteo temperabis, aceto, liquamen et oleo. Calefacies et agitabis apio et satureia.
Sauce for different birds. Pepper, roasted cumin, lovage, mint, seedless raisins or damsons, and a little honey. Combine myrtle wine, vinegar, liquamen, and oil. Heat and whisk with celery and savory.
Moving on to the meat of this post (pun intended), I’ve created a recipe for the pheasant and for the sauce above. I had to make some necessary substitutions — white wine for myrtle wine, raisins instead of damsons, sage and thyme instead of lovage. This sauce is completely optional, and can be served with any other bird as the Latin text suggests. But seeing as I don’t have flamingos near me (the closest ones are at the zoo, so legally out of bounds), I’ve chosen to make pheasant. Here’s my preparation of pheasant with an herb dressing:
1 pheasant, plucked and gutted, minus for the wings (I found they were small, meatless, and tricky to truss)
2 rashers of bacon
1/4 cup of olive oil, plus extra for brushing
1/4 cup of red wine vinegar
2 tbsp of honey
1 tbsp of white wine
1 tbsp of liquamen
2 tbsp of raisins
8 sprigs of thyme
14 mint leaves
18 sage leaves
1/8 tsp of celery seed
1/4 tsp of cumin
1/4 tsp of peppercorns, plus extra to taste
Salt, to taste
Heat the oven to 375ºF. If possible, tie the pheasant’s legs together. Season the pheasant, inside and out, with salt and pepper, then cover with the bacon, breast-side up. I had to split the strips so they would fit. Brush the legs with oil to prevent them from getting too dry.
Place the bird in a pan (I crudely propped it up with celery sticks), then put in the oven for an hour, checking moisture periodically and brushing with additional oil if necessary. Put the celery seed and pepper in a mortar and grind. Add the sage, thyme, and mint while slowly pouring in the vinegar. Mash to a pulp. Then transfer to a bowl and add the honey, oil, wine, and liquamen, stirring well. Mix in the raisins.
Once the pheasant has cooked for an hour, take the bacon off so the breast can brown. Take the pan out of the oven and let cool for 5-10 minutes. Move the bird to a plate, then pour the sauce over and serve.
Photos of the whole bird, the ingredients, the covered bird in a pan, and the finished dish (select a picture to see it closer — some have been cut off).
This pheasant, having lived out in nature, had mostly dark meat. It was also very lean, something the bacon helped with. Though it was an unwonted choice, wrapping the pheasant kept moisture in and imparted a nice, well, bacon-y flavor to the bird.
As I roasted a whole bird, I also found that, even after all the cooking I did, this pheasant was a tad undercooked. I’d definitely recommend cutting into the meat before serving to check doneness. Regardless, I thought it was wonderful to cook wildfowl as the Romans would’ve done. And I’m convinced if you squint hard enough, the pheasant’s feathers look like the Golden Fleece.