A walk on the wildlife side

Fur seals gather around a rock pool.
Fur seals gather around a rock pool.
You need not go far to get away from it all, writes Scott Willis.

Scott Willis
Scott Willis
I love spending time in the garden in my holidays. It’s how I recharge. But I also love getting away from it all, and we decided to have a short family holiday in summer before Lucan, our youngest son, left Dunedin for Wellington.

A good and generous friend offered us the use of a crib in Moeraki and we also had access to farmland to explore and shoot some rabbits. As a family of conscientious omnivores we like knowing where our food comes from and in Moeraki rabbits are a pest at plague proportions.

Driving along the road through the settlement, we couldn’t believe the number of rabbits hopping to the side, sitting on lawns, or crouching in the grass as we passed. Going out that evening the boys managed to shoot a number without seeming to make a dent in the “carpet of rabbits”, to quote Fleur Sullivan, but their hunting went a little way towards the "blanket" made of rabbit skins that the boys intended to make.

Speaking of Fleur, we did of course visit Fleurs Place during our stay. How could we not? I’m no restaurant reviewer but the venue, the hosts and the food at Fleurs are all magnificent and were worth every penny of our very decent splurge.

Fresh fish and seafood is what dining in Moeraki is all about. However, wild rabbit meat is in my opinion an under-appreciated delicacy and not typical restaurant fare. Rabbit casserole or rabbit pie are both pretty special and are dishes we’ve certainly been appreciating since our trip. But rabbits were only a small part of our holiday.

Work begins on a rabbit skin blanket.
Work begins on a rabbit skin blanket.
There’s something magical being away from the sound of cars, with the regular gentle sound of the ocean waves and no internet. Walking around the coast we spied hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins) standing sentinel on and near the beach, in among the fur seals. The fur seals of course are the lords and ladies of this part of the coast, with their pups cavorting around them. It is amazing to be in a part of the country where wildlife, not humans, dominate.

It is not without human intervention though. At the reserve beside the Katiki Point lighthouse Penguin Rescue manager Rosalie Goldsworthy does great work monitoring, protecting and nurturing the hoiho and organising the trapping of the inevitable predators when they arrive. Because that’s the thing I didn’t appreciate at first: rabbits don’t just browse native plants and compete with livestock. They also cause erosion and are food for the predators, such as ferrets, that also attack and kill hoiho chicks.

Shooting rabbits, eating well and exploring while appreciating the wildlife was not all we did. Being away from home there were no jobs to attend to, and time to dip into a book. I managed to finish my Waitati Bookclub book (The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon) and started an easy potboiler I found at the crib. And our evenings were filled with a new board game. "Pandemic" was the name of it, and you may not want to know this, but we lost, each time ...

Jenna’s rabbit and cider casserole recipe

1 rabbit jointed (or more - expand other ingredients to match)

2 onions

330ml-660ml of dry cider (or white wine)

Vege stock or water

Olive oil

Whole garlic cloves

Mushrooms

Butter

Herbs and spices (salt, pepper, chilli flakes, bay leaf, thyme, rosemary)

1-2 tsp of Dijon mustard

Method

1. Heat oil in a heavy pan or oven-proof cast iron casserole.

2. Saute onions until golden on a low-medium heat — remove from pan.

3. Toss rabbit joints and pieces in salt and pepper-seasoned flour and brown in the pan, adding more oil as necessary.

4. Remove rabbit joints/pieces and set aside.

5. Deglaze pan with cider.

6. Return rabbit and onion to pan.

7. Add herbs, mustard and spices and whole garlic cloves.

8. Cook, stirring occasionally and checking on liquid in a 160degC oven for several hours until meat is tender (alternatively transfer to a slow cooker for the day).

9. About half an hour before serving toss some mushrooms in butter, then add to the dish, adjust spices as necessary.

10. The dish can be extended with a tin of cannellini beans and you can garnish with flat-leafed parsley.

Serving

You might want to start with a fresh salad and bread.

I like the rabbit and cider casserole accompanied by potatoes and green beans tossed in garlic and butter. We drank a very nice pinot noir with this dish recently thanks to Sue and Phil but a delicate white wine would also go well.

If you go

Getting there: Moeraki is just 58km from Waitati (78 from central Dunedin) and easily accessible in an EV.

Dining: Cook your own, Fleurs Place, The Fishwife (at weekends outside of summer), Moeraki Tavern

Katiki Point lighthouse and reserve:  The reserve is open from 7.30am to 7.30pm. Do not go closer than 5m to the wildlife. The reserve is managed by volunteers. A donation of $5 per person is appreciated.

 - By Scott Willis

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