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.

Field and Game - - ACROSS THE DITCH -

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.

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