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Archive for the ‘Hunting’ Category

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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Bugle the Brittany, a shotgun and some fresh Southern Highlands bunnies (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

Bugle the Brittany, a shotgun and some fresh Southern Highlands bunnies (Oryctolagus cuniculus).

I love my hunting dog and I love hunting rabbits with a shotgun. On the one hand, it sounds like a heart-felt line from a country song almost too red of neck for Texas; but on the other hand, hunting small game with a shotgun and a gundog is a pursuit that the moneyed types romanticise as well. I can see why; whether the neck is red or bordered by tweed, there is a sophistication and workmanship that needs to be put into it before it can really pay off, especially (a lot of training) for the dog.

It is very early days for Bugle and me. This is not a post about the hunters that we are, but the hunters we want to be.

The gun itself (a cheap second-hand 12 gauge Akkar Churchill) is fairly new to me and I haven’t often hunted with any shotgun before, so I don’t yet do as well with it as I might with a well-sighted .22. But there is a delightful adaptable opportunism to it. The bunny can be still or on the run and it is easier to line up at night in a spotlight beam than it is with a rifle scope. Getting a little more complicated, using variations in shell (the size and number of the pellets) and choke (little collars at the front of the barrel that affect the spread of the pellets) in the two barrels, you can gear yourself up for a couple of different distance options and choose the appropriate barrel as required (if the gun has selectable barrels). You can also carry shells with different shot sizes and take on anything from a little rabbit to a goat (or bigger if you hunt it), depending on what you come across. Funnily enough, with all that provision for different hunting options, it all also provides very well for the option of barely hunting at all. If there is no particular drive to harvest as much as possible, you can head off for a walk with a shotgun (and a trained pointing dog), think more about the stroll than the hunt and still know that, should one of those rare opportune moments arise, you can take it. It is sod’s law of hunting – when you are driven by the hunt there may be nothing to be found, but then the game has a way of showing up on a sightseeing outing in the same place (we did better scouting rabbit warrens during the day on this trip than we did when we returned with the spotlight at night as an example).

Taking a shotgun stroll

Taking a shotgun stroll.

Ahead and to the left of the dog there is a rabbit that it looks like she is onto. Maybe she is, but doesn't yet know that it is something more important to us than seeing a dove in the garden. But she's learning (with the help of a long training line that can be trodden on if she decides to chase instead of point).

Ahead and to the left of the dog there is a rabbit that it looks like she is onto. Maybe she is, but doesn’t yet know that it is something more important to us than seeing a dove in the garden. But she’s learning (with the help of a long training line that can be trodden on if she decides to chase instead of point).

That’s not a dog in mid-stride, it’s a naïve young Brittany working on the miraculous breed instinct of pointing

That’s not a dog in mid-stride, it’s a naïve young Brittany working on the miraculous breed instinct of pointing

The dog, a six-month old Brittany named Bugle, was more of a hindrance than a help on her first trip. But that was to be expected while she got the opportunity to work out what the whole thing is all about. You can see that she has instincts welling up inside her, scouting out, alert to sight and scent, striking a pointing pose for reasons unknown (to me at least, because it was almost certainly a response to scent rather than sight), but she still has little way of knowing what she should be finding and what she should be pointing for. Shown her first shot rabbit, she is clearly excited, but she is initially keen to do little more than sniff and nudge it with her nose (the scent thing again). Then a little lick. Then finally she picks it up. But then drops it uncertainly and leaves it for a sniff around. Time for an intervention (not against scenting, but to reinforce the fact that the rabbit is what we are interested in and that at this stage we want it retrieved). For the last three months I’ve been teaching her to wait until commanded to fetch a tennis ball. So I reach for the tennis ball, play a couple of fetch games and replace it with the smallest rabbit of the haul. She retrieves the rabbit – and oh the pride! Handfuls of treats and deluges of praise follow as she repeats the task again and again. Then it gets hidden a few times and the game becomes search and fetch and a hunting dog gets closer to being born.

Learning to retrieve game. It is a testament to the softness of a born retriever’s mouth that the rabbit was barely roughed up after a few dozen goes – this one was then mostly cut up for her to eat, a reminder that good things come to dogs who work.

Learning to retrieve game. It is a testament to the softness of a born retriever’s mouth that the rabbit was barely roughed up after a few dozen goes – this one was then mostly cut up for her to eat, a reminder that good things come to dogs who work.

After this first outing, Bugle still didn’t get to search out and find a shot rabbit in the field and I missed a good few shot opportunities and the shots themselves with the shotgun, but we are on the way. You never know, we may even get to the job her breed excels at – pointing, holding still while the game is shot and then doing the retrieving just as an added bonus.

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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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Goat river dawn

This is a place where dawn arrives and is utterly insistent upon you knowing how beautiful it is. But still it is goat (Capra hirca) country; which is to say that it is rough back country with soil poor enough for profitable farming to have given up on it. It is a quiet pocket of rural New South Wales, all scantly managed marginal grazing land or bush blocks either resided upon by lovers of a simple life or occasionally visited by city owners. High on a hill behind our riverside camp site, a friend of a brother of a friend has given us the nod. We are free to roam his wonderful slice of nowhere, free to hunt his land.

Goat river panorama

Although this land is more accustomed to a cloak of ragged dry brown, after decent autumn rains, it is wearing splashes of lush green with remarkable ease. This may mean that goats can feed well all over the mountainsides and eschew the necessity of the river where we are taking our walk, but it is so spectacular a route that we stick to it as first choice, leaving traipsing steep hillsides and gullies as a last resort. As it turned out, the hunt got down to business only once. With only one rifle between us, there is only one shooter, behind whom I was trailing by some 50 metres to be neither seen nor heard by his quarry. I got the signal that a mob had been seen, sat down and covered my ears. When the bang is as loud as it is from our .243 rifle, I even cover the deaf ear. The noise, unsettling as it is still is to me, is bizarrely comforting, because it is the power that makes sure that kills are as quick and certain as we can make them.

Goat hunting country

Way up a hillside, a young billy lay down with a heart shot. We retrieved, bled, gutted and hung him over a stick for ease of carrying, and then with little fanfare we retraced our spectacular walk along the river with our prize. Along the way, the rifle was dropped, damaged, and that was that, hunt over, but successful.

Goat toting

It is on the one hand very satisfying to be returning successfully from a hunt, but there is still a sombreness in the weight of a load comprised entirely of dead animal. As a relatively infrequent hunter who is essentially a (fish-eating) vegetarian except for my own meat from occasions like these, I sometimes think that I may be softer in this regard than most. But then I think that I am probably wrong when I find that my meat-loving companions observe the kill with no less respect. There we are, three men from the city who all happily and frequently leave the concrete and wires behind to go bush, completely affirmed with one of many reasons why. Walking up a river in the middle of nowhere, armed and toting a fresh carcass, we are not alien townies out of our comfort zone and out of our depth. We are just three men. Perhaps you never really love where you are and what you are doing until it is imbued with this sort of meaning; that is both flatteningly simple and at the same time loaded with much of the moral complexity of life. There is no whooping and punching the air to proclaim the kill, but neither are their regrets or pangs of guilt. This, to me, is where meat comes from, with all responsibility taken personally for the fact that the ingredients label reads ‘100% dead animal’. Not from a supermarket, but from the middle of nowhere.

Goat hunters' curry

With a quality bag of curry mix (not available in big supermarkets – go to an Indian one and tell them it is for goat), the off cuts from breaking the carcass down to freezer-ready portions become a wonderful take on the traditional camp oven hunter’s stew

 

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Eastern grey kangaroo (Macropus giganteus)

You may well have heard of kangaroo (Macropus spp.) tail stew, but chances are you have never eaten it, because it is unfathomably hard to get a hold of the key ingredient. It is shame, being in my opinion far and away the most delectable part of the animal. The only places I have seen it sold have been in the Northern Territory and South Australia, in both cases near Aboriginal communities – where people have very well informed preferences when it comes to kangaroo cuts (and buy tails with the skin on so that they can better cook them in the coals of a fire). I have no idea where the rest of the tails of the one and a half million kangaroos commercially harvested every year go other than a few that end up as dog treats.  All I know is that it is a shame that none of them seem to go to a butcher or supermarket near you.

A kangaroo is in effect pentapedal (five-legged), using the tail like a limb while walking and a counterbalance while running – it is no meagre appendage

The alternative to buying a kangaroo tail is of course to go out and get one from a kangaroo yourself. But you are not allowed. If you own land you can probably get a permit to shoot some as a culling exercise and ‘pest control’, but these cannot be eaten and must be tagged and left to rot in the field. If you accidentally hit one with your car, you are not allowed to subsequently cut the tail off and be ‘in possession of it’ – something that applies to all native fauna.  And you cannot (with the exception of some wallabies in Tasmania) hunt one. This one peculiar fact and its passing almost entirely without protest from the carnivorous public says all too much to me about the sad disconnectedness between most Australians, their environment and their food:

Alongside the government supported shooting of some one and a half million kangaroos a year, the world’s largest terrestrial wildlife harvest, it is illegal to take one for your own pot.

A kangaroo (or wallaby) tail – the best meat is not the obvious thick butt of the tail but the small nuggets in under the wrapping of tendons; with the unctuousness that comes out of these tendons, and the bone and cartilage of the vertebrae, they aren’t just tender but also lip-stickingly silky

I will own up to having hunted kangaroos and having harvested parts from fresh roadkill (backstrap and tail), and do so with a completely clear conscience. But I will leave it to yours as to how you might get yourself in possession of a kangaroo tail. Truth be told, I haven’t sought them out to buy with much ardour and when (not if, trust me, people will eventually catch on) the market knows enough to ask for it, the wild game processors will respond. I am not suggesting the lack of roo tail in the shops is some cruel conspiracy; it is simply a product of a non-Aboriginal culture in most parts of Australia only a decade or so into the rediscovery of the culinary delights of its national emblem.

Browning the sections of tail gives some caramelised glutamate edge that combines with the sweetness of the ‘vegie juice’ stock

There are probably more roo tail stew recipes online than there ought to be given how rarely it must actually be cooked and you could alternatively adapt something from an ox-tail, ossobuco, or other shank recipe where you are trying to draw out the unctuousness of bone, marrow and/or cartilage. You might well do better than using my recipe (for example I am going here for my next tail), but here it is if only to explain what is in the pictures:

Recipe: The aim is to have the tail and nothing else (except some garlic cloves) as far as solids go so that when you share this with people likely never to have tried roo tail before they get to focus on it. I think that this still needs a rich broth and for this I do a ‘vegie juice stock’: 2 onions, 4 carrots and a half bunch of celery through the juicer. A bunch of parsley, 5 bay leaves and a few sprigs of thyme simmered (or just steeped like a tea in boiling water) for 5-10 minutes. I might also put the juicer pulp in with the simmered stock, but it does make it cloudier in the end. (If I were to buy a stock in, it would probably be beef, possibly with some stout poured in). This time I also put in 140g of tomato paste but might otherwise have deseeded some whole tomatoes through the food mill (or just used passata); all together it is about a stock that ends up sweet and with a bit of a tang. Brown the chunks of roo tail, pour in the liquids and pop in 5 cloves of garlic. My view on browning is that it is to cook a little caramelisation onto it that gives some sweet glutamate / umami flavour without it becoming a burnt bitterness. Stew for a very long time (4-12 hours). Serve with some of the broth, cracked pepper, bread and good supply of napkins.

Stewed kangaroo tail: Strips of tender light meat infused with the silky unctuousness of long-cooked integument and bone

It is perhaps true that I make a bigger deal of a good roo tail stew than many would because other than hunted meat, I don’t actually eat mammals or birds; no ox tails, veal shanks, bacon or fatty duck, nothing that has been farmed against which to compare this native delicacy. But I have shared it with enough people who do eat that stuff to know that I am on some fairly solid ground when I rave about it. It is hardly likely that you will be able to knock one up tonight, but if the opportunity ever presents itself, you should really give it a go.

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Blackfish (Girella tricuspidata), the rabbit of the sea – under-appreciated, algae-grazing small game

Blackfish grazing on a seaweed bed

There are 2 ways I know how to get blackfish (Girella tricuspidata), also known as luderick: One is to fish with a float dangling a tiny hook off rocky shores baited with sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) – a technique I have yet to succeed at; and the other is to get in after them snorkelling with a spear. This last method was a favourite of mine as a teenager around Sydney, and then again in my early thirties as a student doing research on the North Coast. I would use a hand spear (‘Hawaiian sling’ or ‘gidgee spear’) – an aluminium rod with barbed spikes at one end and a large elastic loop at the other that you slide up the shaft to propel the spear when released. They require getting close to the fish, stalking them, a snorkelling version of creeping, around rocks and through kelp, predicting their movements, and taking quick-reflex shots in the tiny window of time before they flee. The elastic digs hard into the space between thumb and finger, still scarred on my right hand from the broken blisters that failed to heal well with the saltwater and repeated wearing away at raw skin. Now, for the first time, I have stepped up a notch with the gear, getting the most basic of spearguns. Now a long thin stainless steel shaft with hinged barbs is loaded up with an elastic loop released by a pistol-grip trigger – double the power, double the distance. Accuracy will probably double too once it becomes the spear that I am used to.

A speared blackfish with an old barbed hand spear head

The favourite blackfish lagoon

For my first outing with the new toy I ventured into my favourite blackfish spot – a pebble beached lagoon, the most beautiful piece of shore I know, a hidden paradise kept still by a rock reef behind raging seas. The water, although at times crystal clear, was murky from recent storm seas and floodwaters off the land. Armed with the speargun, my shooting range was actually further than I could see, drifting slowly, stalking around rocks, making out the familiar shapes, sometimes their distinctive stripes, and all too often the way that they turn on their side to flee from view and from range (a technique that allows them to escape through the shallowest of water that would bar a larger predator – like a shark… or me in fins). My first shot is too late, delayed by vain hopes of a better opportunity to shoot until it becomes a last ditch hope of hitting a fading shadow in the murky gloom. The next is at a fish perfectly side-on, still cruising away but not panicked; and it hits, down towards the tail, threading the fish body on the steel needle inescapably. With my not unjustified paranoia of holding quivering fish in water where sharks may take an interest, I lift it flapping clear of the water and swim on my back to shore in seconds to dispatch it, beach it, and plunge back in. After two more misses, a clean shot hits close to centre (actually not a perfect shot because of damage to good meat) and a second fish is landed. The second of two fish I would not have got with the range of the old hand spear.

Blackfish swimming

A speared blackfish with the new weaponry – the cheapest speargun in the shop

The truth is I have spent a lot of outings launching old bent, degraded-rubber, blunt tipped hand spears vainly at blackfish just that little bit too far away to hit. And so it is also true that I really do like the new edge I get from the speargun. The challenge remains and I’ll take a bit of credit alongside the weapon, gleaned from having hunted these little sea rabbits (because they are jumpy, sea lettuce eating small game) on and off for a quarter of a century. I will not go so far with spearfishing as to head offshore for bigger targets (I’ve a mate who has jumped off ocean-going boats to spear big game fish and then be towed for an hour around the sea dreading the appearance of sharks); but I will keep hunting blackfish, knowing that I’m not the lithe predator I was in my youth, but recalling those days with fondness every time; tasting it in the small boneless fillets fried fast in butter almost burning then quenched with lemon juice and served within half an hour of the kill.

A closing tip: If you are going to cook a blackfish whole, the black gut lining needs scrubbing off – conveniently done with beach sand

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A brace of Otago bunnies

My last hunted rabbit was from our bush block, a once-ever hard-won trophy of hours of twilight stalking a place with few rabbits and just a bow and arrow to do it with. Not that I’ll give up on it; the twilight walk with bow is a beautiful way to take a stroll and bowhunting rabbits is a great challenge, relatively humane and one thing that hunting with firearms is certainly not – quiet, peaceful even, despite the mortal intent. That was a few years ago, before a child took away much of the ability to wander off at meal/bath/bedtime with the bow.

My last rabbit that was not strictly ‘hunted’ was in the rabbit capital of the world as far as I can work out – New Zealand’s Central Otago. It was ‘harvested by automobile’ (roadkill) on the way back from a fishing trip with no fish to claim for it. The front end of the bunny went under the wheel, the back end went in a pot. That was a year ago.

One month ago I was back in New Zealand (something of a second home) and was able to go after rabbits with considerably more intent on an outing with a cousin of mine. While still largely a bowhunter at heart, I am also now something of a convert to hunting rabbits with a 20 gauge shotgun. This is smaller version than the typical 12 gauge, and my cousin’s one a beautiful Turkish Huglu, accurate, light on recoil and relatively quiet. And my cousin’s godfather’s property is an even more beautiful high country station of more thousands of acres than I can work out.

It’s hard not to look like a redneck with a gun on your hip and dead animals in hand

In central Otago, rabbits are so abundant that you harvest them more than hunt them. All you need is somewhere to do it and something to do it with and you just start filling up a box. Where they scatter across steep slopes in front of you it is like an arcade game where you are more likely to fail by not choosing one in time rather than through poor aim. The time to stop harvesting is likely to be when you have about as much as you either want to process or eat. 7 rabbits in our case, as they were all basically for me, and with two weeks before returning to Australia. That said, the time to stop for others at the nearby annual ‘Easter Bunny Hunt’ was more than 23,000 in 2011 which, for charity, the local Boy Scouts then composted. I have mixed feelings about this carnage, my greatest reservation being the knowledge that hunting always treads a delicate balance between a noble approach to a respected prey solemnly killed and a descent into an instinctive bare-toothed bloodlust that can lie within any man. My insistence on eating any prey that I kill is much a discipline to keep me on the nobler side of that equation as it about any ethic held for the sake of the animal. It seems inevitable that bloodlust runs high in the Easter Bunny Hunt.

The bunny box fills

Rabbits, in both of the countries where I am a citizen, are remarkably unpopular as both wildlife and food. In Australia they still bear some of the stigma of ‘Depression food’. In the first half of the twentieth century two wars bled the countryside of too many of its young men, the Depression took farms from the smallholders, the continued industrialisation of agriculture pitted profit margin against intergenerationally improving land management, and rabbits were compounding it all by running rife in their stripping of livestock forage. Theirs was one of many contributions to the enormous loss of topsoil from which the country will never recover. Their meat was a small compensation. Hunters toiled and men rolled carts through poor city streets with their cry of “rabbitoh!” selling cheap meat; canneries shipped tonnes of the stuff to Europe; and the now-iconic Australian felt hats were pounded from the skins of one of our worst environmental disasters.

Countless miles of rabbit fence laced the country; poison baiting, gassing, warren-ripping machinery and explosives were a cost borne in billions by farmers and the state; country children kept ferrets with which they could join the fray. Eradication was the passion of many and the success of none as no amount of hunting could ever get rid of them entirely. A prey as small, numerous and fecund as rabbits in Australia and New Zealand will always rebound from the populations left when hunting returns dip to levels too low continue. Biological control from Myxomatosis in the 1950s, then Calicivirus in the 1990s, each brought significant temporary respite but were then followed by resistance that is still growing.

A Southern Highlands rabbit warren

Rabbits, it must be said, are not now problematically common in the parts of Australia I am most often in – the better watered east coast and highlands – but many parts of the country (and surprisingly large parts of cities) would consider themselves plagued. In Central Otago, rabbits are a problem by which one could almost define the region. On my land in the NSW Southern Highlands I have previously felt, I shamefully admit, that it was a problem which I could actually do with a bit more of. There, our cheap dirt is so badly structured, thin and all-in-all crappy that rabbits struggle to burrow in it, relying instead on the rocky country and scrub for meagre cover. I have noticed them on the increase in neighbouring areas (around Wombeyan Caves) with soil to dig in and perhaps just a slight rise on our place. But after my New Zealand bounty I am no longer secretly wishing for more – I am in Otago often enough these days to get my fix there.

Coming back to the Otago recent haul, an eternal truth reasserted itself: big harvests mean big processing times. Although a redeeming feature of the rabbit is that from whole rabbit to clean carcass is a pretty quick turnaround. When fresh, the skin is pulled off like socks with just a few knife cuts along the way. The head and feet cut away with that skin, then a clean slit up the belly allows the guts to be pulled away fairly neatly with an extra cut through the pelvis to get the last of it clear. If there is bruising from shotgun pellets, sections may be cut away, the meat poor front legs and ribs in their entirety if it is at all messy up there. Then washed, sectioned (maybe 6 pieces per animal), browned and stewed, that simple. I favour whatever takes shape with other available ingredients and googling ‘Spanish rabbit stew’, doing my best with stock, oil and mushrooms to replace calls for chorizo sausage. And I cook low and slow (<150 degrees and >5 hours). And then in this case at least, I eat so much rabbit over the next week that I can probably go without until the next time I am back in New Zealand. Actually, mum if you are reading this, I have remembered that there are four legs still in the freezer there that you might want to do something with.

Prepared rabbits

Rabbit stew

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