Cheap and cheerful
I know, I know. This column is supposed to be about the New Zealand game bird scene – opening day on Mallards, honking in canadas and all the rest – but once in a while you need to look back to humble beginnings.
And by that, I mean right at your feet. Cast your mind back to the earliest memories of your hunting life. The thrill of opening day would have been a huge annual event, to be sure, but I bet the bread and butter times weren’t so glamorous. Some of you may remember coming home from school and off for a walk with a dog and an old side-by-side, down the dusty road and past the gum trees, hoping for a rabbit or two. Bringing home a brace and getting that wink from Dad. It wouldn’t be allowed today, but the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.
The proof is in the pudding, or so they say … well, rabbit pie on a cold winter’s night was a favourite then and still is. The same beast jointed and fried Southernstyle is heaven with a cold beer on a warm summer’s evening. They were a staple for our grandparents and kept more kids fed than just about anything except potatoes.
And I know just how grateful it is possible to be for a rabbit. Twenty years ago, my wife and I had the use of a remote hut on private land, nobody about for miles. As soon as we got settled, it belted down for a solid day, so no getting out until the river crossings dropped. Never mind, we had supplies for a week.
‘Had’ is the key word. After a big day scouting around we got back to the hut and found every last shred of food had been fouled by rats. With at least three days before any exit was possible we did a clean-up and a stocktake, and it wasn’t pretty. The only things fit to eat were a jar of oil and another of flour. A little seasoning and some chutney. Not much to look at on a hungry belly.
You know what happens next. For the first time in my life I began to hunt not as a treat, but to keep the wolf from the door. Trust me on this, it feels different. You start counting shells. The dog somehow picks it
and kicks up a gear too. Blackberry bunnies are never easy though, and the first crack at a grey blur streaking across a small opening was a devastating miss. Behind, of course. Never check the swing, you damn fool. One less shell and the dog is giving you The Look. And that’s how it is: tense, focused, real.
We got lucky that afternoon, just after a shower passed and a faint rainbow appeared over the bracken. Coming down the hill with a pair of rabbits nodding at my belt I saw VJ’S big smile. I wonder just how many men have felt all those things through the ages – the pressure to make it work, the joy and relief of putting food on the table. It’s a hard thing to put a name to. She found a patch of wild thyme near the hut chimney and held out a handful, still wet from the light rain.
That night we made a couple of flatbreads and cooked them on the lid of the camp oven. The rabbits, now diced and browned in olive oil, got plenty of salt and pepper and a good fistful of chopped thyme. A slash of hot chutney and we ate the steaming tortillas with our fingers as the frost began to settle outside. There was even a nip of whisky for dessert. The whole thing was plain and honest and felt good, and the wolf beat a hasty retreat from the door.
I can afford to be nostalgic about the humble rabbit. It’s different for some farmers, or for the Depression generation who lived off them day after day while the world’s economy fell to pieces. But I can tell you this – the little cottontail has put more boots in the field and made more happy times than just about any other game you can name. And I wouldn’t swap the memory of those few days – where we lived simply and happily all by ourselves, with just a dog and an old shotgun – for anything.