Where there is stubble
It's hard to imagine that in just a few weeks time Autumn will be over. I've never liked calendar seasons, they're never on cue! I'm hoping Autumn weather sticks around for a while yet, but I know that before long the black hole of winter will return. I'm well prepared though. My larder stores are just fine. The meat freezer is full of venison, lamb and soon another whole pig. I've also been able to sneak in a few wild ducks this season, which end up as the key ingredient in a few our favourite family dish's, the arancini of which I've been reminded to cook soon my smallest ratbag. "Dad when are you going to cook the duck arancini?" she's five. I think I might be in some trouble here. As much as we all adore the taste of a hearty duck meal, I cannot pass up the flavour of wild quail. I know it's tiny and fiddly to eat, but I can easily look past this, for it's that beautiful meat thats so alluring. Nick my quail hunting mate and I, have been trying to book a day or two working the field with the dogs the season. A mixture of bad weather and busy schedules have been conspiring against us. That is until this past weekend. Finally the two of us were able to meet up and walk those fields, hunting the feathered delight that is stubble quail.
Late in the afternoon I arrived at camp. Nick had already set about with the saw preparing some wood for the fire. I came prepared with a cache of dried split firewood in the truck. This time of year you can't trust the weather so I figured instead of trying to start a fire with soggy wet wood I'd bring my own ready to go.
The window of oppurtunity was fairly tight, we agreed to work with the time we had and keep our fingers crossed for a successful hunt. To be honest, I've never walked away from a quail hunt with a heap of birds in the bag. It's a wild meat that I've found to be a far from a freezer filler. For me it's more sought after because of it's flavour. It's very much like wild duck for me. I never get many each hunting season but the ones I do are a real culinary prize.
There is another reason why I hunt quail. Similar to hunting other birds, it requires both hard work and skill. If it all comes off right, the whole experience is rewarding as hell. It's nice to able to share the experiences with a another dedicated and passionate hunter. On some hunts the notion of a shared passion with your fellow hunter is strictly unspoken. But out here with Nick, we talk constantly about why we hunt, and what it means to us to be responsible for the meat we ultimately have to kill for. He's very passionate about his right to hunt. His right to a particular way of life. I can respect that.
We walked the fields, across acres of stubble left over from the summer crops. Harvested maize and grassy fields dominated the landscape. Perfect habitat for the stubble quail, although that maize was tricky to traverse!. That hard corn stubble poking out from the soil, had me tripping all the way to China. It's hard as nails, easy enough to walk down, but as soon as you need to walk across the neat rows you can find yourself as clumsy as Mr Bean.
There was still enough spectacular autumnal light for a quick session over some dams for duck. Nick had been hunting these dams a few weeks prior and the hunt had been good. With the amount of fox poison laid from the local farmers we decided to leave the dogs in the truck while we jumped the dams. As soon as a duck was shot, we'd let a dog out to obediently retrieve it. With a wet dog and hungry bellies we headed back to camp. Nick had found a great spot next to an abandoned farm house, a ghost house really. A remnant of a time when labour workers populated the area, but now they're replaced by efficient machinery so many a house sits idle. Eventually these haunted shacks fall into such disrepair, they'll crumble and fade into the past, just as those laborious workers have. Only ghosts will remain.
The following morning fresh from a night of star gazing, we rose from our warm swags, geared up and headed straight out to the surrounding paddocks hoping to locate some quail. Wadding through the wet grass I couldn't help but acknowledge the irony of the present situation. Here I was, taking a stand, a hunter of wild food. Hunting for my meals, all in an effort to remove myself from the supermarket food system. And what ground was I hunting in? Why it's Victorias richest vegetable growing region of Gippsland. The paddocks were filled with broccoli, asparagus, potato, corn and leek just to mention a few. All of this food would end up at the wholesale markets, then to supermarkets. Theres a good chance most of it's been sprayed with some pesticide or fertiliser. I couldn't help but smile at it all.
Setting aside all things ironic, we walked those fields soaking in the stunning scenery and weather show. To the north sat the rising mountains of the high country. Majestic and proud. Thats where my heart lies. I grew up at the base of those mountains. I cannot deny that they have some power over me.
All other directions it was flatlands, allowing for full skies, and super sized vistas. Just another great bonus to being a man that hunts for his food. When you put yourself out in nature, it rewards you with stunning skies, moonlight nights and moody clouds. Far prettier than the inside of any building. No matter how talented a human can be at design, they're no match for the beauty of the outdoors. And no match for what the outdoor provides the soul.
The dogs, Nick and I worked into the day, our legs dragged through the wet grass, jagged stubble, across muddied fields. Nicks dog Jack is an experienced quail pointer, my dog Henry however was new to quail pointing. I was concerned that he'd diverge off to the hint of rabbit, his favourite beast to hunt. But in the end I finished the day a very proud fella. He pointed a few birds and I shot over him just like we do with Jack.
With a little bit of encouragement and training he got the gist of what we where doing. It's a phenomenal feeling working hand in hand with a hunting dog. Henry zig zagged the fields, his nose to the ground, a hundred miles and hour, covering the ground searching for any hint of quail. He chased a few, but eventually got it. He ran right over a bird, stopped in mid air, and spun around on point, starring with his bee sting tail hard as nails pointing behind him. I walked to his rear, and the two of us flushed the bird out. With all the excitement of his first point (on quail) I missed that damn bird. But he allowed me to shot over him and it's the start of many years of quail hunting for the pair of us. No doubt a life long partnership.
We ended up with a bag of quail and two ducks. Not much for a days work, but enough to keep us happy. Nick and I parted ways, shaking hands until the next time we meet.
I got home to my girls excited to see me, but in reality they where probably more excited to see a basket of birds. They know those birds will make some delicious meals for them to enjoy. We lit the fire pit in the vegetable garden and spent the afternoon plucking birds. Even though the girls had girly moments of "eeewww blood" and "grossssss" they still managed to help pluck the birds clean with me. I guess after all these years, they know that the end result is worth the gore. It is after all, 'gore-met' food.
I marinated the quail with a smokey pimenton, thyme, garlic and cumin rub. With a bit of melted butter the birds were well covered flavour and I placed them over the hot coals of the fire to cook. They sizzled away as the girls and I started to salivate. I didn't realise that the afternoon had slipped away so far, I guess we'd been so busy plucking we lost track of time and totally missed lunch. I don't know about the kids, but my belly was grumbling! When I was sure the birds where cooked well, I removed one to check. Perfect! The feast was on! The girls and I had marinade and juices all over our faces. We squeezed over the lemon juice and devoured each bird with fervour.
The quail hunt signals the beginning of the end of Autumn. We sat in the vegetable garden to pluck and cook these birds, where we were surrounded by the bare garden beds of Autumn. The clock has been reset now. It's a time of transition. It's the one time of the year when the larder is fully stocked with food from the three productive seasons, Spring through to Autumn. Now it's time time to rest. It's a time to allow the slow down. Soon the hunting season for birds will end, and we'll retreat to the warmth of the house, where most of the winter we'll hide, enjoying the spoils of seasons past. It's been years in the making this system of living. I reckon I've finally got it running smoothly.