By the time these words see print, bird season will have come and gone. There was laughter, mateship, triumph and failure ... but it's also a safe bet there's something in the freezer as well.
Recipes come and go, but all the great game cooks share a common characteristic, and that's focus on preparation. If you study the care a hunter takes with meat you know exactly what their level of respect for quarry is.
Quick chilling and careful dressing show thought towards the end product. Like seafood, game bird cuisine always walks a tightrope — overcooked it becomes inedible, overseasoned and that hint of wilderness is gone.
Waterfowl are possibly the easiest for beginners to mess up. More people have been turned off by dry roasted duck than any other gamebird. Oven bags or covered cooking with plenty of moisture — good stock or orange juice — works well, and when it's done the shredded meat works beautifully in a rich ragout sauce for pasta.
Then there's schnitzel, duck and mushroom risotto ... you get the picture. Europe has known for centuries how to do the sideline flavours — cider-braised red cabbage with its sweet-sour note, flash-fried apples, or orange with its lift, freshness and acidity.
Game cooking is not forgiving. Wander off for a beer or get distracted playing with the labrador and you'll come back to dog food. (Which is why labs hang around barbecues in the first place. Told you they're smart.)
Because of their uneven shape and lumpy distribution of meat (the birds that is, not labradors) I prefer to open and butterfly quail. A light working over with the back of a chef knife quickly flattens them out.
The birds cook faster and more evenly, and kitchen nerds will tell you that you get a better ratio of cooking surface to volume, which means marinades can do their job better before cooking and you get more caramelised surface after.
This kind of cooking starts with fire.
It isn't a style that works for a gentle electric cooktop, which will usually end up simmering the meat in its own juices. Think smoking hot grill for the first few minutes.
The marinated birds go on skin side down and are left alone until they are more than half done. By the time the skin has good colour the birds can be turned and finished for a minute or two on the cavity side.
They're on the point when a light press on the breast gives a small amount of compression. Squishy means still raw inside, and hard means you're feeding the lab again. Err on the side of squishy. You can always give them half a minute more.
There's no scope in a short column to go into beers and wines for game dishes, but the general principle is to match the intensity of the dish.
Rabbit is a classic example. Crumbed and served as spicy Southern style finger food it cries out for something light — a crisp Pilsener would do me.
That same beast slow-cooked to pieces with thyme, smoky bacon, balsamic vinegar, bay and mushrooms really demands a good dark ale or a pinot noir. Duck with its richness needs a little acid to cleanse the palate from time to time. It goes well with sweet dark fruit like cherries, which points to pinot noir.
If there's a hint of citrus in the recipe try something with a similar tang, a good dry riesling or Emerson's Bird Dog ale. (OK, you'll have to cross The Ditch to get the last one... but there are worse fates.)
As I write the New Zealand Game Bird Festival is drawing to a close. Now in its 10th year, restaurants across the country have again been offering game bird hunters the chance to have their bag prepared by professional chefs, much to the relief of some duck-hunting widows I'm sure.
There aren't many rules — just pick a nice bird, dress carefully and let the chefs do their thing. It's a wonderful way to introduce new people to the life we love.
The most important thing about game cookery is one that you won't find in any of the recipe books, because it's beyond technique. It is the oldest cuisine of all.
It comes from the cave, the desert, the riverbank — the days before cities and towns, even before farming. In all that time only one thing has remained the same. It's all about company. The best thing to go with a fine game meal are people whose hearts belong in wild places, helped you to earn it and who delight in the stories.
Add to that a fire and a maybe an old dog to sleep by it and then, my friend, you have more than a meal. You have a moment you might remember for the rest of your life.
Pete Ryan's simple quail