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It has been a long time off the blog; but finally, as we are gearing up for another Fat of the Land and Sea Week, I really should post the outcome of the original. All in all, a great challenge but a great success too. In part, the success can be credited with a reinvigorated wild and homegrown food passion that dragged my focus to some new collaborations and efforts away from here, but plans to ramp this up are still drifting around in the mix.

At first, I thought that going for a week eating only homegrown and wild food wouldn’t be that hard. But it was. And then it wasn’t, and it wouldn’t be a second time around. I learned a lot.

Day 1

It all started a bit shaky with me failing at my hunt and finding my bees didn’t have any honey to spare. I left our bush block empty-handed except for some quinces – the worst forage for a hungry man as they need a lot of slow cooking to make them edible. Things were looking up with a huge haul of roadside apples, at least 30kg, on the way home. Mostly crabs too tart to eat out of hand, but fine for cooking or cider (it made the lack of honey even more of a shame, because it would have given a boost to either of those options).

Opening the beehive – when there are no combs fully capped, no combs can be harvested

Opening the beehive – when there are no combs fully capped, no combs can be harvested.

The first forage was a load of quinces. We’d decided on starting from scratch on Day 1, which meant that all I had to start on was something that needs a lot of cooking.

The first forage was a load of quinces. We’d decided on starting from scratch on Day 1, which meant that all I had to start on was something that needs a lot of cooking.

Breaking fast with some roadside apples – which are typically very tart and crabby (or worm-ridden if sweet). There was one tree that had some fruit that just worked for eating out of hand, but two tart apples were about all an empty stomach could approach until dinner. There were at least 30kg of these (of which half remain prepped in my freezer for Winter pies and booze).

Breaking fast with some roadside apples – which are typically very tart and crabby (or worm-ridden if sweet). There was one tree that had some fruit that just worked for eating out of hand, but two tart apples were about all an empty stomach could approach until dinner. There were at least 30kg of these (of which half remain prepped in my freezer for Winter pies and booze).

By the end of the day, things were looking positively rosy when I got back to find others converging on my house with very large amounts of hunted goat, speared fish and a fair bit of foraged and homegrown fruit and veg. A quick hit on our garden and we got busy dividing up so we could all go off with a few days survival secured. In celebration, I feasted on fish and stewed pears; and, because it was one of my two exceptions along with olive oil, I drank wine.

Calamondins brought to the day 1 food-share. In my view, citrus is among food’s ‘critical infrastructure’, but very few are fruiting in Autumn, so these tart little kumquat-like babies were a godsend.

Calamondins brought to the day 1 food-share. In my view, citrus is among food’s ‘critical infrastructure’, but very few are fruiting in Autumn, so these tart little kumquat-like babies were a godsend.

Day 2

Day 2 started badly and got little better. Through what I assume was a virus helped along by combination of exhaustion, being underfed and drinking too much wine, I was practically bed-ridden. I had been up in the night vomiting stewed pears and fish. All I know is that it wasn’t the food – it is not that often that 7 other people are signed on to eating the exact same stuff as you, and they were were all fine. I awoke with no options other than stewed pears and fish as a ready-to-eat meal and couldn’t face either. What’s more I was faced with the prospect of cleaning a very sizeable haul of fish and getting it in the freezer before it went off. That did not go well. If you have never gutted a surgeonfish, which I hadn’t, do not do it on a weak stomach. While the flesh is reputedly perfectly palatable, the gutting is disgusting. It was more of a tainted retch than a full vomit I’d have to say, but with that, I had no real desire to eat any fish at all. Things stayed that way for the rest of the week – I forced down one piece of kingfish ceviche on day 7, but that was it. This was unfortunate, given that there was lot of fish in my freezer.

Halfway through fish cleaning; normally something I enjoy, but not when wracked by nausea and when surgeonfish (not pictured) are involved.

Halfway through fish cleaning; normally something I enjoy, but not when wracked by nausea and when surgeonfish (not pictured) are involved.

Day 3

Day 3 found me still in pretty bad shape. I had slept 13 hours, but still felt like more. Or some caffeine. With milk in it. With cheese and butter also off the table, I realised how much I like dairy. There was also another forager down with a virus or something. I wasn’t the only one struggling. And another who had to cancel his fishing trip for the day because I was too ill to take to the waves. I’d managed to get a rabbit, some goat and half a roadkill wood duck in the slow cooker the night before and I managed to dig up and clean a kilo or two of edible canna (Queensland arrowroot) in the morning; it joined the meat with some herbs and I figured I had dinner for four – including the man down.

Day 1 had brought in some hunted goat and (of all things) a roadkill wood duck, and the Day 2 hunting party came through with rabbit. Food was clearly not lacking in either quality or quantity, there was just a bit of lifestyle habit and illness to shift before it could become easy.

Day 1 had brought in some hunted goat and (of all things) a roadkill wood duck, and the Day 2 hunting party came through with rabbit. Food was clearly not lacking in either quality or quantity, there was just a bit of lifestyle habit and illness to shift before it could become easy.

A harvest of Queensland arrowroot for carbs (supplemented cursorily with some sorghum and maize that had seeded from chook food when their bedding is re-used as fertile mulch) and the stew became hearty as well as fancy.

A harvest of Queensland arrowroot for carbs (supplemented cursorily with some sorghum and maize that had seeded from chook food when their bedding is re-used as fertile mulch) and the stew became hearty as well as fancy.

This was probably the first meal after I had properly embraced the FOTLAS idea properly – a delicious mixed game stew with garden starchy bits, parsley, chilli and Thai basil.

This was probably the first meal after I had properly embraced the FOTLAS idea properly – a delicious mixed game stew with garden starchy bits, parsley, chilli and Thai basil.

I delivered some stew to a couple of others en route to trade some fish for some bunya nuts. A mate was house-sitting an empty mansion with a bunya pine in it and just happened to send an email expressing his surprise at the size of the pinecones that were falling. Great big bombs laden with carbs – just what we were after! Things were looking up again. But we had lost one forager to the temptation of boardroom catering – and then there were seven.

Bunya nuts in abundance, the famed feast food of the Bundjalung people. From this point on (about halfway) it became clear that hunger would only be a consequence of not finding the time to do the huge of amount of processing involved with a lot of wild food.

Bunya nuts in abundance, the famed feast food of the Bundjalung people. From this point on (about halfway) it became clear that hunger would only be a consequence of not finding the time to do the huge of amount of processing involved with a lot of wild food.

Day 4

I discovered bunya nuts. I had tried them before on a trip where we gathered some from a park in Wellington (NSW) en route to a few weeks in the bush, back before the internet was on phones, and worked out that they are not quite right uncooked, hard as rock overcooked and delicious when done just right. A tricky feat for novices with only a campfire to work with. Now with online suggestion and fancy new oven, we nailed it – 25 minutes at 200 degrees C. Figuring pine nuts were a pesto ingredient and with plentiful basil, pasta pesto was reinvented with a basil sauce over roast bunya nuts playing the part of gnocchi. I was back in good health and back on track.

Bunyas used like gnocchi with a basil sauce – pasta pesto without the pasta.

Bunyas used like gnocchi with a basil sauce – pasta pesto without the pasta.

Day 5

I was loving it! After doing the school run, I popped by the sea and had a dive for sea snails, picked up some sea lettuce and returned home. I set them aside (to become sous vide tenderised nuggets on skewers at the final feast) and replaced them with someone’s abalone from the previous weekend and some bunya nuts done with my favourite Thai combo of chilli and Thai basil (plus sea lettuce). Another forager had traded with a neighbour for some hunted venison – I took the time to give a backstrap fillet 8 hours sous vide with oil and a lot of herbs and had my first crack at ‘forager’s bread’. It was a recipe that I was later unable to recreate; a sheer luck combo of boiled Queensland arrowroot, leached acorns and bunyas, blended, flattened into rounds in a tortilla press and pan-fried (I’ve lost the picture and don’t know how to get it off Instagram, but it’s here). With tender venison in a perfect nutty flatbread following the abalone and chilli basil bunyas, I wasn’t just subsisting by the end of the day but laying a happy head down after two of my finest meals in memory.

An early morning snorkel and forage.

An early morning snorkel and forage.

Chilli basil stir-fried bunya nuts and abalone.

Chilli basil stir-fried bunya nuts and abalone.

Day 6

Having dug up a rather meagre harvest of kumara in the shady, sandy side garden on Day 1, I got around to snooping underground in the sunny front bed. 10kg of tubers came up easily from just a quarter of the bed. A pang of guilt that some others would have liked to know about this bonanza earlier was assuaged by knowing that the offer to come digging had been declined by all. I lunched on chilli basil super stew of rabbit, venison, goat, duck, bunya, arrowroot and roadside pears. Dinner came as huge roast kumara with bunya pesto (using native spinach, rocket and amaranth with the basil) topped with chilli and chives. For the first time of the week I was actually stuffed at the end of the day.

Day 7

Feast day. Up at 7 am to start the coals and rig up a whole goat on a spit on top of them, 3 kilos of kumara stitched up inside it. I try, unsuccessfully, to recreate the pliable forager’s flatbread, but nonetheless get some fried flatbread through with the help of the Squeeze. Fish arrives in perfect order – freshly speared kingfish. Home-made wine, shop-bought beer, vodka with foraged mint / lemon myrtle / stevia syrup and we settle into celebrating our success and laughing over the struggles.

Most of the Fat of the Land and Sea Week crew - a finer bunch of fishers, foragers, hunters and growers may never have assembled!

Most of the Fat of the Land and Sea Week crew – a finer bunch of fishers, foragers, hunters and growers may never have assembled! (photo credit: @mostlyfish)

Fat of the Land and Sea Week Spring is coming!

Plans are now confirmed for Fat of the Land and Sea Week Spring 2015. Sunday 11 – Saturday 17 October. To make it more accessible, especially for people with limited wild and homegrown resources or limited time while still working through the week full-time, we’ll be tweaking the rules. In some form or other, pretty much anyone can get involved. Dates to be confirmed, but we welcome anyone and everyone to come aboard.

FOTLAS 2015 Rules:

  1. Wild and homegrown food every day for a week. This may be that something is wild or homegrown every day or in every meal or, at the full-on end of the spectrum, that everything is.
  2. You can nominate some specific ingredients as exceptions. As many as you like for whatever reason. This would usually be things that are central to your cooking (olive oil, some seasonings), personal health regime (yoghurt, turmeric, oat bran, your weird kale-based kombucha, whatever), small pleasures in life (coffee, wine, chocolate) or a staple to keep you from starving (rice, potatoes, bread) while you make the challenge about what goes with it.
  3. You may require of yourself that it is all gathered within the week or you may allow yourself to get a start stockpiling some wild and home-grown food beforehand. That might be just the previous Saturday or that you start stocking the larder and freezer now (I’ll be allowing larder use so I can keep a better handle on the day job).
  4. Trading, gifting and generally doing the week in collaboration with friends or strangers is encouraged. It is a week to celebrate and a week to make you think about your own personal engagement with food and your place in a food network. Making it local means people can do things like drop in for something someone else has lots of (like fish or greens) midweek or make a dish and drop it around to others.
  5. It runs from a Sunday to a Saturday; and on that Saturday, there should be a feast!
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Myall Lakes Prawns – mostly greasyback (Metapenaeus bennettae) and school prawns (Metapenaeus macleayi)

Myall Lakes Prawns – mostly greasyback (Metapenaeus bennettae) and school prawns (Metapenaeus macleayi)

When I was a kid, a kilo of school prawns and some mayonnaise was considered fast food for a family. With perhaps some white bread to wrap them in. McDonalds also came on the scene. It’s a terrible shame which one the world has managed to leave the most room for. Commercially, a lot of wild prawn fisheries are in a bad way, in terms of their numbers, bycatch impact, toxin uptake and/or other aspects of their sustainability. The prawn farmers are also a mixed bunch; some working towards some pretty sustainable food production, and others having a shameful toll by digging up wetlands, pillaging the sea for the feed inputs and discharging harmful effluents (Asian imports tend to rate the worst on these scores for prawns on sale in Australia). All in all, it is often very hard to know what you are buying. So, until some decent labelling laws come in, I pretty much don’t buy prawns at all.

This is where one the great joys of foraging means the most – there is no better way of knowing where your seafood comes from than getting right into the water and going after it yourself. I have been longing to try my hand at prawning for quite a while now, but I just wasn’t sure of how or where to give it a go. Some friends who knew this just so happened to come from a Central / Mid-north Coast family who take their prawning seriously. A casual invite to their last session of the season was leapt upon within seconds.

“What do I bring? Torches, a scoop net?” I asked, “You name it, I’ll get it”. “A pair of sandshoes” was the answer. A three hour drive to Bulahdelah to their family seat, a laid-back lunch of wonderful homegrown abundance and then off to the secret spot. I don’t actually know how guarded people are about their prawning spots, because the prawns don’t live there – they are just passing through on their way to the sea to breed. Nonetheless, having been afforded the dignity of not being blindfolded for the journey, I will leave locations out of it.

Heading to the prawning spot

Heading to the prawning spot

The drag net with its ingenious homemade harness

The drag net with its ingenious homemade harness

Bringing in the net

Bringing in the net

The prawn net itself is a pretty impressive piece of kit. Six metres of 30mm aperture net feeding into a tail end where, all going well, the prawns accumulate. There are floats along the top rope, weights along the bottom and 1.7 metres of net between them. It is all held square by two sturdy poles that must be dragged through the water by hand. Normally people hang on to ropes to drag it, although we had the benefit of an ingenious homemade custom rig with harnesses. The care and detail of these gave an early indication that I was under some pretty expert tutoring.

With the calculations about tide, moon, time and place made long before with tide charts and a hefty store of experience, and with the biggest and best set-up possible under NSW rules, it seemed that the hardest bits had been done. From there, it was just a walk through the water with another bloke five metres away doing the same. Simple. Until you start thinking about being belly deep in water in which to my mind there ought to be stingrays to tread on and bull sharks to be paranoid about. With phosphorescence in the water, your legs glow a little as they move, and so does the wake of fish that might swerve in front of you. Things start getting a little creepy for a bit until rationality reclaims its ground. The guys who have been doing it for decades had no concerns, so that did for me.

It turns out that the biggest danger is in fact a 5cm fish that looks not much more menacing than an aquarium goldfish – the fortescue (Centropogon australis), with spines that are said to give an agonising sting. And the danger isn’t even really in the water (because of the sandshoes), but sorting the catch when comfortably on dry land. Or perhaps that is the second biggest danger, behind missing out on being altogether chuffed with the realisation that you are out there getting amongst it on a beautiful starry night in paradise.

Successful prawning can go a long time into the night. If another pass with the net meant another kilo or two of prawns, you would take it. And another, until fatigue set in. And then the processing rules are pretty firm – you catch ‘em, you cook ‘em, that night. Unfortunately, we were safely in bed around midnight. This meant something under two kilos put away; where being up until 3am with twenty kilos would obviously have been preferred. However, it was enough at least for one glorious feed the next day and a few extra snacks.

With prawns, like a lot of seafood delicacies (abalone, crab, whitebait), simple is best. Just a little salt, fat (like butter) and tang (lemon) – or all three in the form of mayonnaise. If accompanied by anything else, just the simplest white bread fits the bill. Don’t let fine food snobbery lure you into some dark sourdough rye and angel-sweat-infused aioli which ends in you not tasting the catch. Wine and a nap would have topped it off to perfection. But it was water and a three hour drive back to the city instead; all the while planning on getting back out there when the season, sunset, tide and moon next align. Saturday 5th December is looking good for me – I can hardly wait.

Greasyback prawn (Metapenaeus bennettae) in the net

Greasyback prawn (Metapenaeus bennettae) in the net

Perfectly cooked prawns (which I have learned to be boiled in smallish batches in salted water just until a bubble can be seen under the shell of a middle segment)

Perfectly cooked prawns (which I have learned to be best boiled in smallish batches in salted water just until a bubble can be seen under the shell of a middle segment)

Prawn perfection (when simple is best): Freshly caught Myall Lakes prawns, freshly baked white bread roll, butter, mayonnaise

Prawn perfection (when simple is best): Freshly caught Myall Lakes prawns, freshly baked white bread roll, butter, mayonnaise

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Tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix)

Tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix)

Tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix; ‘bluefish’ in many parts of their very wide distribution around the world) aka ‘choppers’ around here for their predatory method of coming in behind their prey and chomping with razor sharp teeth, are a fish that have recently made me feel a little guilty, truth be told. While I am quick to defend the culinary virtues of some fish that some anglers are quick to leave behind as bait or ‘rubbish fish’ (like slimy mackerel, bonito, Australian salmon, leatherjacket and even yellowtail scad), tailor has strangely been the fish I’ve been happiest to bypass.

Soft fleshed fish, to the point of being hard to work with for many recipes, hasn’t suited my idea of sea meat, I suppose. And yet allowed to be just that – tender even with quite careless cooking – it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But perhaps the bigger thing is that tailor fishing has rarely fitted in with my ideal of a day out on the water. They are estuary fish, and in my part of the world that means Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay. Beautiful in their own right, but busy.

Botany Bay vista, with Sydney Airport, container terminals, city skyline and no shortage of other boats

Botany Bay vista, with Sydney Airport, container terminals, city skyline and no shortage of other boats

Approached from the sea, Sydney is (unbeknownst to most) the world’s most spectacularly walled city. Huge, sheer sandstone cliffs rise up like ramparts no castle will ever match. There is an extraordinary ocean wilderness on one side and one of the busiest modern cities in the southern hemisphere on the other (check out my mate Normy’s paraglider crossing of the heads youtube video for some spectacular imagery). The thing is, I so much love fishing outside the walls that tailor have somehow seemed like second class fare to be taken en route. Kind of like a pastry from a petrol station – hard to resist but eventually unsatisfying.

From the offshore perspective, the same view in the photo above is gorgeously hidden by these city walls

From the offshore perspective, the same view in the photo above is gorgeously hidden by these city walls

But with an onshore sou’wester and choppier seas than anticipated on a recent outing keeping us from the open water, bay fishing it was. The vast spectacle of the open Pacific would have been all too likely interrupted by the threat of small boating disaster and the inevitability of seasickness. So, a backdrop of container terminals, airport runways, city skylines and scores of other boats on Botany Bay became the setting of a dedicated harvest of the best return on offer. Tailor.

The catch was mostly taken not long after dawn broke, between 6 and 7 in the morning. They are savagely ravenous hunters. We (2 of us) trolled small lures until one of us had a hit, then as they retrieved the fish, the other cast small silver lures in the direction of the action, usually hooking up. When that dried up, we moved on to another troll and repeated, diving birds generally leading the way. We stopped well short of a bag limit, figuring we were missing out on other options that never came through, only to come back to find them (and the Australian salmon chasing the same baitfish) a lot more picky about lures in the full light of day.

Most fisherman tend to favour pan-fried or battered and deep-fried tailor – but a lot of fishermen tend to prefer almost all fish that way. Served with beer. Other fishers’ favourites include smoking and the cheeky recipe offering of “use as bait to catch a snapper [Pagrus auratus]; then cook the snapper”. Whole baked fish seems the best idea to me though. For one thing, and who hasn’t over-cooked firmer non-oily fish like flathead, you are unlikely to get it wrong and dry it out. Tailor are indeed soft and they do indeed taste a bit oily and fishy. Some find baking mutes the slightly strong taste. You can still catch that flavour and use it well by catching it in pan juices and then a sauce. A sorrel sauce (like here), or in any case something with both lemon and herbs (parsley, basil, mint) to balance the strong tailor taste, but using less oil than most recipes may advise and perhaps a bit more salt. Or in my case, pie gravy – this time a variation below on a recently posted recipe (here) – because I am currently a little bit obsessed with the delights of fish pies.

I tend to top and tail all fish these days, feeding the offcuts (less the razor teeth) to the dog; and for whole baked tailor this seems to work very well

I tend to top and tail all fish these days, feeding the offcuts (less the razor teeth) to the dog; and for whole baked tailor this seems to work very well

Recipe: Tailor and mussel pie

Lay four tailor out, just overlapping in a baking dish. Drizzle with oil and salt, giving it a rub if you are inclined (don’t worry too much about adding any other flavours because they come later). Cook for 30 mins at 200C; skin should be crinkly but not burnt and the flesh should pull easily from the bone. Let it cool and deflesh; keep the skin with the meat. Pour the pan juices and the fish frames into a pot with a big bunch of herbs (any or all of (in my personal choice of priority) kaffir lime leaf, lemon myrtle, Thai basil, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, sage, rosemary, Vietnamese mint, lemongrass, dill, sweet or perennial basil, mint, fennel, marjoram, oregano, celery and/or lovage). The amount of herbs should be pretty huge, to the extent that it would be silly expensive if they were all shop bought, so it will probably hinge to a great extent upon what you can lay your hands on. Add a cup or so of water and lay 1kg of mussels on top (NZ greenlips, pretty affordable as far as seafood goes, a good sustainable option and a great contributor of both meat and stock flavour – always buy them frozen (outside of NZ) because they all leave the country this way, so why compromise freshness with ‘thawed for your convenience’). Steam the mussels (in the shell ideally) and stop before they start to lose any plumpness. Allow it to cool enough to pick out the mussel meat. Strain the stock and put enough of in a jar to shake with, and disperse, 3 Tblsp flour. Sauté a diced onion and then some crushed garlic in the pot with a generous chunk of butter and when it is golden/translucent, put everything back in with it (with a tsp of smoked paprika if you like) and stir, stir, stir. Sprinkle extra flour if too runny or add milk if too thick, all the time stirring. Hopefully the mix can take ten minutes of this so the flour gets a decent cooking. The tailor will be broken down into a fishy gloop with the nuggets of mussel suspended in it. Add a cup (or otherwise to taste) of grated cheddar cheese, stir in and pour the lot in a baking dish that works as a pie dish. Allow it to cool before covering with puff or other pie pastry and bake until the pastry is right.

Serve with a topping of sour cream and a pie sauce of choice – in this case a wild plum ketchup from a recent forage

Serve with a topping of sour cream and a pie sauce of choice – in this case a wild plum ketchup from a recent forage

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Yabbies (Cherax destructor), a basic dipping sauce and mangoes – a relatively light start to the recent Christmas feasting

Yabbies (Cherax destructor), a basic dipping sauce and mangoes – a relatively light start to the recent Christmas feasting

Mangoes, croissants and prawns. Whether it is a tradition or a strong memory, I really couldn’t say, but that is Christmas morning food in my mind. A relatively light starter on a day that, by necessity, needs to anticipate some serious stuffing. And I was intent on putting it on our December 25 breakfast table last year (as in, last week). The mango stays (and to be honest, it is probably the least negotiable of all). Croissants easily give way to the Squeeze’s family tradition of chocolate pancakes. This is our family’s American side and, at their best, they do pancakes that can genuinely make a mockery of the imitations most of us Australians and Kiwis know.

But for prawns, despite doing a lot to keep myself informed and engaged on the issue, it remains all too hard to work out which particular array on a fishmonger’s iced shelf may or may not be part of an oceanic Armageddon of which I want no part. They all look like prawns and therefore like they are delicious, but how do I pick the signs of outrageous bycatch slaughter and waste or Southeast Asian wetland destruction in their empty spiny visages? In the absence of reasonable labelling requirements, an unreasonable amount of consumer effort is the answer. I understand that there are some sustainably and ethically harvested prawns out there, but practically, it becomes easier just to leave them all be.

What we call a yabby  - but in appreciation of the American pancakes (not pictured, sorry), and that we are a half-American family, let’s call these ones ‘Christmas crawdads’

What we call a yabby – but in appreciation of the American pancakes (not pictured, sorry), and that we are a half-American family, let’s call these ones ‘Christmas crawdads’

So, I have switched to foraged yabbies (Cherax destructor). Prawning with a hand net is on my list of planned foraging adventures, but until that day, yabbies are my closest accessible foraging bet. And, what is more, I prefer them. These from the NSW Southern Highlands (actually lowlands in the middle of the east, but so named for being marginally more southern and higher than Sydney). They may live in still murky water, but they still manage to taste like flowing rivers as long as the actual mud gets purged before the pot. And that is a precious taste, all too rare in dry old Australia, of what we sometimes call ‘sweetwater’.

Much like a prawn, you extract the tail meat from the shell, pull out the digestive line (“poo vein”) and dip the meat in a sauce that frequently involves mayonnaise. Unlike a prawn, you also get a couple of claws to get into – approached as you would a crab claw (cautiously if alive and with gusto if cooked).

Yabbies Cooked

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With a decent haul of summer fish, it feels good to be able to put a little more seafood on the table. My share of a recent catch included one kingfish (Seriola lalandi), three nannygai (Centroberyx affinis), two flathead (Platycephalus sp.) and a blue morwong (Nemadactylus douglasii) (something else (probably a morwong) stolen on the retrieve by a fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) of all things). After a little sashimi sampling of kingfish and some fresh nannygai fillets in fish burritos, attention turns to the offcuts. Time for fish head pie.

Nannygai, kingfish and flathead heads

Nannygai, kingfish and flathead heads

Anything filleted (kingfish and nannygai) or beheaded before freezing (flathead) gets frames and heads thrown in the slow cooker with just enough water to cover. The tails are omitted as it turns out the dog has a penchant for crunching them down; although she’d have not got it off the pigfish (Bodianus unimaculatus) that the skipper took home, because the seal had already helped itself to it.

Once cooked, the fish heads are taken out and all the flesh is picked off and set aside; then the remains go back in the cooker along with a big bunch of herbs (thyme, sage, kaffir lime, lemon myrtle, lemon grass, Vietnamese mint, parsley and Thai basil). Once fragrant it all gets strained to become a very herby fish stock.

A lot of herbs smells at first like it might be overdoing it, but by the time it gets into the stodginess of a mornay sauce it mellows a lot

A lot of herbs smells at first like it might be overdoing it, but by the time it gets into the stodginess of a mornay sauce it mellows a lot

The concentrated stock then becomes the base of a fish and herb mornay (white sauce with cheese), has the picked flesh stirred in and allowed to cool. After an optional additional stirring through of a raw egg or two, it is topped with puff pastry and baked as fish head pot pie. Summer is here and it is a wonderful thing to live near the sea and a herb garden.

Cheese and flour turns the reduced herby fish stock into a kind of mornay sauce through which the recovered fish meat is stirred

Cheese and flour turns the reduced herby fish stock into a kind of mornay sauce through which the recovered fish meat is stirred

Topped with pastry and baked, you have a beautiful fish head pie

Topped with pastry and baked, you have a beautiful fish head pie

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I forage for sea snails (see previous posts on paua, cartrut snailsabalone and turban snails). It is a bit fiddly and they aren’t all to everyone’s taste, but I love it. For one thing I love snorkelling and so the gathering is no effort; and for another, as an archaeologist, shell middens (the remains of pre-1788 Aboriginal seaside foraging) are my specialist thing. For years, this midden-love has driven me to keep my foraged shells; piles of them in the garden and at the bush block and bags of them on the shelf in my office. But now I am using them up.

From foraged sea snails I get meat and shells

From foraged sea snails I get meat and shells

I have recently acquired chickens, six of them, and I want them to knock out an egg most days, each one obviously with a shell. So they need calcium, and I have a whole lot that turned out to be ready and waiting for them in the form of the seashells. I crush them between bricks and they eat any piece small enough to get down their gullet. My dad grew up on a chook farm and the common standard of using oyster grit that he knew 60 years ago as a lad is still in practice today; I just have a foraged version.

Shells go into chickens and shells come out of chickens

Shells go into chickens and shells come out of chickens

Then I get eggshells. Unfortunately they don’t come with the pearly nacre of a turban snail or the rainbow reflections of an abalone shell, but they are nonetheless nice and strong. While some folk will feed these back to the chooks, I have the seashells for that. So I boil, dry and crush the eggshells to feed them to the puppy instead. You see, she still just has her baby teeth and can’t really make much of a dent in a bone and meanwhile has fast growing bones of her own. So she needs calcium too. For most pups these days, this comes in the processed food, but with me feeding her on real meat and vegetables as much as I can, I need to add calcium; and some of it comes in the form of powdered egg shells.

It is a pretty good system if you ask me, and I still get the choice bits: Sea snail meat, fresh eggs and a healthy dog.

As chook owners do, we eat a lot of eggs and accumulate a lot of shells; these are boiled, oven dried (avoiding salmonella risks) and crushed

As chook owners do, we eat a lot of eggs and accumulate a lot of shells; these are boiled, oven dried (avoiding salmonella risks) and crushed

The crushed shells go with meat (plus kumara, carrots, legumes, vegetable oil, etc) into home-made dog food

The crushed shells go with meat (plus kumara, carrots, legumes, vegetable oil, etc) into home-made dog food

I’m liking the idea of sea snail mince cooked for a long time sous vide these days and put in pies with a mornay sauce; but for the sake of this post, a sea snail omelette with sour cream and hot sauce also works

I’m liking the idea of sea snail mince cooked for a long time sous vide these days and put in pies with a mornay sauce; but for the sake of this post, a sea snail omelette with sour cream and hot sauce also works

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Fairly early on in the dive, I looked out into the blackness above the surface to see where the other three lights were shining below and thought to myself, ‘these guys are f’ing crazy’. But then I thought ‘what the hell’ and followed. Later on, looking out for them again, I realised that I was bobbing in the ocean off a place named after sharks in the middle of the night and only then did it dawn on me: Given that they had a lot more idea of what they doing than I did, if anyone was f’ing crazy, it was me. I talked myself down from the start of freaking out and pissed in my wetsuit. Again. Mostly, but not entirely, because when it’s your wetsuit and you’re cold, you’re allowed to.

A picture actually taken on a safe and simple cave dive in Mexico, but you get the idea, it can be a little freaky down there in the dark

A picture actually taken on a safe and simple cave dive in Mexico, but you get the idea, it can be a little freaky down there in the dark

With just a relatively few sheltered-water night snorkels and night scubas behind me, this was pushing outside of my comfort zone. These other fellas, on the other hand, were serious spearfishermen; it wasn’t their first rodeo as they say, and in their 5mm diving wetsuits and long diving fins they were rugged up and warm and cruising along. Meanwhile, in a cheap old poorly fitting 3mm suit and bodysurfing fins, I was freezing and flapping by comparison.

Night snorkelling (pic from another post)

Night snorkeling from above (pic from another post)

We were there to hunt crays (eastern rock lobster, Jasus verreauxi), and that means ferreting down among the cracks and overhangs after them. Diving gloves on and experience at their disposal for the others, gardening gloves and what turned out to be some nice beginner’s luck for me. Seeing three crays lurking in a crack, I notice that one is a little small; the next part is a bit of a blur insofar as all I recall is lunging in to grab something other than the small one. And then I surfaced with one of the bigger crayfish in my hand. There are specific bags that one carries for putting these things in. I don’t have one. One of the others kindly carries my catch, and we head off for more. Even more kindly, when I had become so cold as to start having trouble getting about properly, he heads in with me. He had his bag limit of two and I had exceeded the expectations that I started with by having anything at all and getting back in one piece. By the time the other lads were in, I was well on my way into warming up in long underwear, three jumpers and a bottle of wine.

The hard-won prize, eastern rock lobster (or crayfish), Jasus verreauxi

The hard-won prize, eastern rock lobster (or crayfish), Jasus verreauxi

Once comfortable, I was able to slowly start putting the pieces of the memory of all it all back together. How I hadn’t lost my weight belt after all, but had simply left it off while nervously messing with my gear at the start, as if somehow it might become something other than shoddy and old if I toyed with it enough. How much more sinuous and slinky the most spectacular of the night fish are; the wonderful emerald and caramel coloured green moray eels (Gymnothorax prasinus), the beardies (Lotella rhacina), the blindsharks (Brachaelurus waddi) and Port Jackson sharks (Heterodontus portusjacksoni). Then how the inky black alien sensory overload of it all was such that other nastier sharks hadn’t gotten around to really being a concern of mine. And how a big yellow gibbous moon rose up out of the sea and I told myself to marvel at a mental picture of it later because my mind didn’t have the time to enjoy it right then.

Cray_gear

The cray is in the fridge, I’m going over for mum’s birthday tonight and I’ll get dad to turn the barbie on. I’m not sure which story I’ll tell, because both of them are true in their way; whether I went bravely into the night sea to hunt a crayfish by hand, or nervously followed three crazy men out there and got lucky.

Barbecued crayfish, with noting more than a lot of butter (top recipe here)

Barbecued crayfish, with nothing more than a lot of butter (top recipe here)

Caveat: Of all the foraging I have written about, this is the last thing that I would recommend having a go at. The truth is that it is not entirely safe. Leaving aside the issue of sharks, if something goes wrong out there, there is a real chance that you could end up being flotsam and a news story.

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