Underground mutton



Thursday 6 Oct 2010: WARM spring evening. Moths in the spotlight. Kangaroos below the garden wall, munching. You can hear them beyond the circle of the light. The mopoke must be perched again on the front gate. You can catch him through the dark, still air, calling for a mate. Saturday looms. We are hosting a lunch to raise the last of funds for Western Australian farmers, chefs and students heading to Terra Madre. It’s to be at New Norcia, Australia’s oldest monastery, deep in the heart of the wheatbelt. One of the monks, a former abbot, is to join us at the table among the splendours of some of Italy’s finest post-renaissance religious art. They have collected it for generations. There is a hunter in them. There is a little hunter in we all of us. The monks have hunted God and the spirit through an icon. We’re hunting money. Terra Madre is hunting shared ideas. And people will be hunting lunch.

It’s the night for mincing the wild rabbit, the first course. It was hunted, too, properly trapped, at Yealering. There are ten of them, and it’s taken more than half of yesterday and last night and today to defrost them. They’ve travelled a few ‘food miles’, but in Western Australia little distance at all. They are plump, shiny rabbits, with bright sinews and round, pink shoulders. They smell of freshly-killed fish and a hint of chicken. You can almost smell the fur of them, that edge-of-wild, yet soft, enticing coat that they have lost since they were trapped.

We have bolted the mincer to the old garden table. There are scales. The dog has found that it likes the rabbit bones and scraps of flesh that run down to the paws. The dog hunts rabbits in the paddock in the fading light of each afternoon. It is a game, not sport. In seven months he has caught just one. He was a rescue dog, a suburban dog, who probably never knew what it was to chase a wild creature. Now a farm dog, he is transformed. He seems a ‘thinker’ dog, reserved, yet bold when there’s a chance. He sits back from the table on the grass as the mincer-handle turns at the table’s edge. There’s the soft sound of gristle as the flesh threads below the screw. It is an old mincer with a small mouth.

Two rabbits, eight hundred and seven grams of mince. Rabbit meat from eight frames to go. The chef is to combine this slowly-gathering mince with organic berkshire pork raised by Annie Kavanagh, a Terra Madre delegate-farmer from Spencers Brook: ‘underground mutton’ and rare breed pig, together in a meat ball, with local prune chutney. As the handle turns, you wonder at the loss of this to many people. For most, as close as they come to raw food is that on a styrofoam tray, wrapped in cling-film, stamped with a barcode and bleeped through a check-out. It is the product of our industrially-farmed age. It is not a fat, springtime rabbit caught with a traditional snap-jaw trap. In some Australian places you can no longer hunt them, legally. Let alone eat them, this wild-food. They come not with a hygiene certificate, not with a barcode.

Related story A journey to New Norcia

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