EATING FOR BRITAIN: BUGS VS BUMPKIN
This much I know.
Hunting is wrong, right? Toffs in red chasing some poor, helpless fox around the countryside aided only by twenty of their friends on horseback, a pack of ravenous dogs and a few bugles. Corporate bigwigs from The City shooting thousands of birds of which the majority will be buried and precious few will end up in the pot, or hare coursing by, well just about anyone.
And, of course, if you were just to look at it that way, you can understand why hunting is up there, in many people’s eyes, with child molestation and mass poisoning.
But, let’s step back a moment and look at it from a different direction, that of the men of the countryside, of the farmer whose crops are blighted by pigeons or whose cattle and other live stock are made lame by rabbit holes. To them, hunting is not only the most efficient form of pest control, but also provides an added source of food for the table and income from sales to game dealers. Without them, our menus would be much the poorer.
But, what do I know? I am only a city boy. Well, I know enough to think that there have to be many sides to a story that is amongst the most contentious in the U.K and that it is an important part of my trip to get off my high, liberal horse, and go and find out what it is like for those, literally out in the field.
Stuart Blackman has been involved in countryside pursuits since he was a small child and, after what he described as three “wasted” years at university and a job that merely got in the way of his true passion, he jumped at the chance of redundancy to set up The Country Bumpkin offering people like me the chance to join him for a day’s foraging, shooting and cooking.
On a cold, February morning, there was precious little to be foraged and Stuart, with innate common sense, knew better than to let me near a gun. So, he had suggested that we spend a morning in the company of two of his ten ferrets while they set about their task of chasing rabbits into the purse nets Stuart began laying across the holes of the warren the moment we arrived in the field.
For a nation whose view of rabbits comes entirely from Beatrix Potter and Art Garfunkel, the thought of killing and eating rabbits can be an uncomfortable one. However, Stuart left me in no doubt that to him these are vermin, pests who are vast in number and who do considerable damage. He does not deny that he enjoys spending his time outdoors or enjoys equally cooking the fruits of his day’s activities, but his main concern is to “catch and dispatch” the rabbits as quickly as possible.
Soon after laying the nets and placing the small ferret at the entrance to a bolt-hole, the animal had done its task and a rabbit was caught in the nets to be killed quickly with a twist of the neck. While the sight of its legs twitching in death throes was not something I can ever imagine getting used to, Stuart assured me it was dead already and set to work catching more.
Not long after, our work was done and we had four animals to carry to a nearby barn and clean for supper. First though, another great countryside tradition, a quick brew up and a slice of fantastic Victoria sponge made by Stuart’s mum, just the job to conquer the cold wind blowing across the fields of Hertfordshire.
In the barn, Stuart cleaned out the guts of the animal and then, as the video demonstrates, skinned them with a deft precision and cleaned them ready for cooking before turning his attention to preparing a quick lunch of a splendid pigeon breast sandwich.
Back at Country Bumpkin H.Q, Stuart got down to the main reason for my visit, the preparation of one of the fifty dishes for my EATING FOR BRITAIN trip, a rabbit pie. Trimming the meat from the bones with the practised skill of a man who has done it a thousand times, he tossed the meat in seasoned flour before cooking down with chunks of onion and carrot and the carcasses to add extra flavour. While it was cooking, he told me about the wild food nights he is running in local pubs and restaurants where everything served is caught, foraged and prepared by him, everything from nettle soup to hare pate. By the time it was time to roll the lard based pastry lid on the pie, I was already salivating.
Stuart apologised for the final result stating “ there’s no airs and graces with my food” he had no need to be sorry, it was delicious. The rabbit pie was real food, the sort of dish that would have Greg Wallace saying “deep” and “savoury” until his head exploded. I sat in Stuart’s living room, eyeballing his two hunting pointer dogs, spooning the chunks of meat and gravy to my mouth until most of the pie was gone.
If felt bad enough to leave him at least some of the pie, I was not foolish enough to turn down the offer of the remaining two rabbits, which Stuart cleaned and wrapped for me to take away as he waved goodbye to me some eight hours after I had arrived. Supper tomorrow is already in the planning stage.
I know that one simple blog post about rabbit pie wont do much to bridge the gap between pro and anti hunting camps. I know that, even after a day with Stuart, there are still some hunting practices that I can never reconcile with my views even given my love of meat. But, I also know that Stuart Blackman is a passionate countryman who has absolute respect for the animals he hunts and kills, who takes loving care in preparing them and has more honesty in his little finger than any person who buys their meat and fish in handy portions at the supermarket and then joins an anti-hunt rally.
This much I know.