"See! From the brake the whirring pheasant springs, And mounts exulting on triumphant wings; Short is his joy! He feels the fiery wound, Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground." Alexander Pope
The first impetus for this post was this painting by Edouard Vuillard, simply called The pheasant. The pheasant, however, is actually just a detail in the picture and originally this was sort of going to be the point. But then I started thinking about the pheasant itself - it's food after all - which led to other things, so I have extracted just that detail in the picture and am going to try and talk about game birds.
First of all pheasant. I think I have written before of the two gifts of pheasant that I have had in my life and my attempts to cook it, so I won't go there again. When I started thinking about it today - and all the other game birds that I know - partridge, grouse, guinea fowl, pigeons (squab) quail, geese, and ducks, I realised that we see very few of them on our plates here in Australia. So I started wondering what we do eat here in the way of game birds, and where does it come from, as well as what earlier Australians might have eaten in the past.
Well let me get that out of the way first - what the first settlers ate - and the Aboriginals too. Probably anything they could get their hands on as well as what the settlers brought with them. 'Anything that moves' as one English lady now living in France once told me that the French hunted. The only reference I could find was to mutton birds (shearwaters) which are still 'harvested' by Aboriginal Australians in Tasmania every year. I'm guessing that this is a highly regulated process and I do vaguely remember something about endangering the species. I'm also guessing that the collected birds are just eaten by the Aboriginals themselves. I don't think you will find them either in the shops - however specialist, or in a restaurant. So I think the answer is that there is not a commonly hunted native Australian bird.
Well except for ducks I guess. The annual duck hunting season is always an occasion for much controversy with protests and media publicity. And really why is it necessary? It's cruel and primitive. Duck is a farmed animal these days. Yes - also cruel - and I really should go vegetarian but I just can't quite do it. Anyway there is no need for hunting and shooting. There are plenty of farmed ducks available.
Hunting, of course, is a truly ancient practice. Well, with gathering, it was the only way to get food for prehistoric man and even when the first civilisations came into being and domesticated animals and crops they still supplemented farmed food with hunted food. As this gorgeous Egyptian painting shows. Then later it split into sport for the aristocrats and subsistence for the poor who often had to resort to poaching from the aristocrats' stocks. And that tradition still persists in Britain - and elsewhere of course.
A long ago boyfriend from Yorkshire would beat the grouse out of the foliage on the Yorkshire moors for the local lords of the manor to supplement his income as a schoolboy and student. It still goes on. Lines of locals beat the long grass and plants so that the birds fly up in the air to be shot by the hunters.
In Britain it's mostly the wealthy that do the hunting - in France and probably all over Europe it's the rural classes. You will find signs like this all over rural France and occasionally hear the distant shots of men shooting 'anything that moves'. Sometimes that might be big game like wild boar, or pests like rabbits, but it is often birds of one kind or another - to be cooked by their wives for dinner.
However, even in France the hunt is becoming increasingly regulated, and even banned in some small pockets. It's primitive and unnecessary and let's hope that it will one day disappear altogether in spite of the long-established traditions, picturesque costumes and photo opportunities.
What does happen in Europe though is extensive farming of the game birds. I remember when we holidayed in the Dordogne passing by a very large pen of such birds - partridge maybe, or guinea fowl. I wasn't sure. It's big business over there. Almost every café or restaurant in central France will have some kind of game bird on its menu - even if it's only duck. The ubiquitous duck is everywhere.
We do farm them in Australia but not much:
"The species of birds traditionally hunted in various parts of the world for food or sport are considered game birds. Game bird species farmed in Australia are pheasants, partridges, guinea fowl, quail, geese and pigeons (squab)." AgriFutures Australia
Interestingly duck was not mentioned in this list but duck is definitely farmed - and not just for the bird itself - also for the eggs.
Pheasants, partridges, guinea fowl. When did you last see any of these on a menu in a restaurant here? So not much activity there I think. Indeed AgriFutures suggested that most of this kind of farming was done as a sideline to a farmer's main activity, for a hobby farmer, or even a suburban hobbyist with a large block of land. Not commercial ventures anyway.
Quail - now this is apparently the only one of the birds with one largish commercial producer. And yes, quail often appears on menus, you can sometimes buy it in the supermarket, and the eggs are becoming increasingly available. I wrote about quail a long, long, time ago and see that we have moved on from back then when you could only get quail in places like the Queen Vic Market so I am assuming that the industry has expanded.
Geese - well foie gras production is banned here - it's barbaric after all. Goose used to be the traditional British Christmas bird, but I don't think I have ever seen goose here. Although now that I think of it a gourmet friend from many years ago may have cooked us goose at a Christmas in June dinner way back then. I have no idea where she found it.
Which leads us to pigeons, known in posher circles as squab. Rats of the air, many call them, and you can hardly say they are uncommon. Indeed they are probably considered to be pests, although I don't think there are as many of them here as overseas. Feral anyway so you would think a natural target for culling. But then they are probably diseased and therefore unfit for human consumption. People keep them for racing of course, so I'm guessing they can be easily farmed. Difficult to eat though - like quail they're a bit bony. I think I've eaten pigeons somewhere but it was a long, long time ago and I can't remember the taste.
Maybe Australians just have a natural aversion to eating game birds, even though we eat chickens in vast quantities. I imagine the increasing number of Asian origin Australians might increase the farming of duck as they eat a lot of it, but the rest? Well AgriFutures doesn't seem that optimistic:
"the expansion of the game bird industry in Australia is restricted by low rates of fertility and hatchability, variable egg production and growth rates, inadequate understanding of nutrition needs and a lack of quality breeding programs. Therefore, Australian game bird industries will need to improve their efficiency if they are to remain viable in the domestic market or to compete internationally." AgriFutures Australia
Now that's a bit damning isn't it?