I've been out for a few days with Nick, a new hunting mate and his two amazing dogs, Jack and Louie.We walked over many wet field, the dogs getting on point once they'd hook a whiff of quail, and then we'd flush and shoot.
I'm sure we walked many a mile, because by the end of the weekend my legs were weary from lifting them over the long wet grass and my arm was sore and tired from carrying my big Lanber 12 gauge. This season there isn't as many birds around, so Nick regaled me with stories of his hunts last season. There was a seemingly endless supply of quail.
But this year, whether it's the availability of the right agricultural habitat the quail prefer, or maybe it's the weather no one can be sure, but we are sure that there just isn't as many birds. Same goes for ducks. But that often signals a big year the next season. Nature is a fickle beast. Like a woman, she'll make her mind up as she pleases. She keeps us humble men on our toes. I kinda like that.
She certainly did keep us on our toes with the wild winter weather. We had gale force winds and squally rain at times. You could see the spray of shot from the gun move in the wind and hit the grass a little off to where you aimed. At night when we hunted hare and rabbit, Nick almost disowned his .22 in disgust. It seemed to be no match for the ridiculously strong wind. Thankfully I took my .22 Magnum, which seemed to handle the wind a bit better. I bagged 3 hare and 2 rabbits. I've already cooked a pork sausage and hare tenderloin bean brew for breakfast. A meal fit for a hunter warming up for working a very cold day.
The simple things. Brilliant. Encouraging. Heart warming.
I'm booked in for a quail shoot soon and I can't wait, it's like Christmas for me. If I'm lucky I might bag a few more ducks and possibly a hare. But in the meantime I'll cook what I have in the frozen larder already. I cooked some lovely quail and instead of wrapping the little legs in prosciutto or jamon I used a sopressa salami and now have a new favourite baked quail leg.
A lot of people turn their noses up at quail and consider it nothing more than a fancy restaurant dining bird. Their loss really. I think it's one of the best tasting wild birds available, and better than duck in many respects. The meat is more succulent and requires far less cooking time.
I have people complain that the bird is too small and requires too much effort to get the meat off. Oh diddums!...So my solution is simple...I do the work for the lazy complaining eaters. I'll roast a few birds, shred the meat off and pop it in something like a ragu or basic pasta sauce. This time round I made a tomato/red wine based ragu with some of my garden veg, I added the roasted quail meat and simmered for a good few hours, topping up the liquid when it looked dry. I also added some white beans to give it a bit more 'meatiness' to the sauce, then served it with some fluffy couscous. The customers seemed happy with the meal. Maybe I'll make it again.
We've just had a cold snap, the weather turned from late summer to winter in a matter of days. We don't really have a long summer here and the last few seem to be shorter than usual. But thats weather, it's always changing. With the cold weather I decided it was time to start hunting rabbits again. They breed in late winter and plenty of young rabbits skip around and grow happily feeding on the lush green grass of summer. There sure hasn't been a lack of moisture, and that, with the sunlight of summer, has kept the food supply plentiful this season. Over summer I tend to focus on growing vegetables and fly fishing more so than spending time hunting small game. The combination of long grass and venomous snakes are kind of off putting, especially when most of my hunting is done in the darkness of night, when the rabbits are most active. I don't actually mind snakes, I respect them, but there is always the chance of stepping on one accidentally and receiving a nasty 'fuck you dude' bite on the leg. And seeing that I often hunt alone...this is not such a cool way to end a hunting night.
The cool change in weather convinced me that it was time so get out there again so I packed my gun, grabbed plenty of rounds and drove the Jeep out to one of my most loved spots, a private property 30 minutes north of our little cottage. I was hoping to bag a few rabbits with the idea of poaching the meat to use on saturday night pizzas, I had fingers crossed. The wind was calm, in fact there was almost no wind, which sometimes I think works against me. The noise of my every move seems to ripple through the grass. They must hear me coming a mile away. Yet somehow I still manage to sneak up to get a clean shot. It's all about patience, this hunting game. Oh that and having keen senses and good observational skills helps too. If you're the kind of person that doesn't notice that the next door neighbours house has been repainted a different colour then I recommend you avoid hunting. You need to stop often, take in everything around you. Your eyes need to scan across the landscape taking in anything that moves or seems out of place. There are plenty of distractions; the flutter of birds, the movement of dragonfly or the noise of an inquisitive possum out for a feed. I had all these distractions the other night.
Eventually the dashing spot of white tail and dim grey shape of a bunny hops from one spot to another. They're so well camouflaged, especially at dusk when the light is poor. Often I'll sit down and wait for that moment to pass and I'll wait to welcome the darkness, that's when I can cheat. I have a powerful hunting torch that gives up the location of a rabbit very easily making the job much more efficient. It didn't take me long to realise that I was well out of practice with the rifle, I missed about 5 to poor shooting. By the end of the cool season after I've been hunting at night for months, I can usually load a round into the chamber, bring the scope to the eye and get a clean shot in seconds. But I'm rusty right now. I've been spending too much time digging soil and sitting in front of a monitor writing. Give me a few months back in the real world and I'll be back in form. On this night I managed to bag two healthy rabbits. Not too old not to young. Just perfect for cooking.
The night was clear, with satellites zooming across the sky and constellations amazing me with their intense beauty. It was surprisingly mild and I wondered how many snakes were wandering around with me that I hadn't noticed. Plenty I bet. The grass was long and dry and the seed heads often stuck to my clothes as I brushed past them. This got me thinking about seed collecting back at the veg patch for those plants that I'd allowed to go to seed. I really ought to start planning for the cool season plantings too. I haven't even planted purple broccoli yet! Shit! So much needs to be planted for winter!
After a few hours wandering around in the dark I decided it had been as successful a hunt as I could have wanted. I hiked back over my tracks, across the creek and back into the patch of bush where I'd parked the Jeep. On the way home, my window open, I pondered my night. I was happy to be out again.
Yesterday was amazing! Such great feedback! Thank you for all the ace people that took a peak at episode #1. Hearing that people have been inspired to re-think how they utilise the soil in their backyard because of this blog almost had me tearing up with joy!
Today on Grow Gather Hunt Cook, I cook one of my favourite rabbit dishes, Spanish Rabbit Legs. For anyone (that for some odd reason) is squeamish about eating wild meat, this is the meal to change your mind. I fed it to Andy my Pizza Oven mate, who had NEVER eaten rabbit, and he was an immediate convert! So give it a try. For any locals, let me know if you want me to get you some wild legs and I'll see what I can do.
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In America and Europe the season for hunting various birds and mammals is just around the corner. I truly respect people that hunt for their meat. I am one of them, and I know we are the few remaining people that are bold enough to do what needs to be done. It's hard work hunting, just as it's hard work raising your own animals and then dispatching them for meat. This is why I have developed the mantra...treat meat as a treat. I also have a mantra to combine the wild meat with it's seasonal friends. In Autumn wild birds cook magnificently with wild mushrooms. A marriage made in wild food heaven.
This Autumn my eldest daughter and I foraged our local woods for mushrooms, almost on a weekly basis. She's 5 years old and can tell the difference between a Saffron Milk Cap and a Slippery Jack. (Remember ONLY eat wild mushrooms you know 100%). And yes she is a dork, just like her Dad.
If I did the math I wouldn't be surprised to discover that I do in fact eat mostly vegetarian meals. Mostly because it's easier to grow my own veg than it is to hunt for a regular supply of meat. When the season's right I can get my meat and freeze what I can. And when I get low I can buy a sustainable meat source such as Kangaroo. A few times in the year I'll make a trip to John Harbour Butchers and make the purchase of a Lamb shoulder or maybe some shanks. But really it's a super decadent treat. On the rare occasion that I go out for lunch (usually with my parents to a pub) I'll order meat. Again a treat.
This approach to understanding where my meat comes from, and respecting it by cooking it the best way possible to fully enjoy its ultimate potential is my choice. It certainly isn't the majority rule. Which is a pity really because the environmental impacts of sheep and cattle farming on a large scale are phenomenally devastating. But it's nothing for a punter to walk into a supermarket and fill their basket with meat, some meat and then more meat.
It would be less pressure on the natural world if more people grew their own vegetables and fruit and ate meat as a treat. I often wonder if it was legislated that you can only eat the meat that you kill yourself, how many people would become vegetarian. It's an ugly business, one of which I'm prepared to endure. I am after all content in my biological description of being omnivorous.
I also often wonder, if it were law that only people that actually needed a 4WD/SUV for farming/hunting/fishing/outdoors activities were allowed to own one, then would all those people that drive their massive 4x4's to the supermarket for a loaf of bread and to pick the kids up from school, actually get a more practical small car? I doubt it. I fear we are doomed, as there are more stupid people with money than there are poor people with sense.
One last rant. When you take an animal's life, be that a wild duck, quail, pheasant or a home raised duck or chicken; we should use the whole bird. Bake it whole, roast it whole, then use the carcass to make a stock, then feed the bones to the dog and the scraps to the compost. Waste nothing for that animal has lost it's life so that you can fuel yours.