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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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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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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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