Thursday, May 26, 2011

My visit to 'rabbit country'

Early morning in autumnal Ballan

As you may well be aware I have a fascination with wild rabbits and their role as food in tough times. Australia has a rich history of fighting and eating wild rabbits. Rabbits were introduced in the state of Victoria in 1859 for hunting purposes and quickly became an invasive pest. During the great depression rabbitohs sold rabbits door to door. Now both wild and farmed rabbits are highly regulated as a food while the ongoing struggle to develop biological controls over wild populations continues.

So before my recent working holiday in Melbourne (2000 k's on the train) I asked my mate Tony who grew up in the regional centre of Ballarat if he had any ideas about how I might find a rabbit hunter to interview. He told me about a little town called Ballan just outside Ballarat where he recalled seeing a sign at the pub advertising fresh rabbits. I was instructed to find Hudsons Hotel where Tony's uncle Kevin used to drink, and see if anyone can sell me a rabbit.

The unassuming Hudsons Hotel 

I had only left myself one day to get a rabbit and/or interview before my train ride back up north. I knew this was not enough to guarantee that I got a rabbit, but I resolved to make the most of the experience. Ballan was a comfortable one hour train ride from Melbourne that took me through hilly grazing country and dropped me in a very autumnal little township smothered in amber leaves. After arriving at Hudsons I had a couple of beers and discovered that the deceased father of the lady behind the bar was the last person to openly sell wild rabbits in Ballan. I booked a room and was escorted down a long faux wood panelled hallway into a demountable extension and as I was putting my bags down I met Dave, local sparky, and the pubs' self appointed welcoming committee.  After dinner I checked in with the cooks in the kitchen, I was told I should talk to a fella called Muzzy who I discovered holding court at the end of the bar. I decided to catch up with him when he wasn't so busy and went outside for some fresh air. I bumped into Dave having a cigarette with his mate Benny, and told them I was looking to buy a rabbit, Dave said he'd make some calls as he was certain he could get a frozen rabbit from a mate. I asked both fellas about field dressing and butchering techniques. Benny was very forthcoming and rattled off answers to all my questions with complete confidence. He told me that there were times when he could have shot as many rabbits as he wanted from his bedroom window. He also told me that the rabbit calicivirus that controversially escaped from an island laboratory off the coast of South Australia in 1995 had come and gone and that rabbits were as plentiful as ever. Along with stories about just how abundant rabbits were he informed me that if you cook rabbit for 35 minutes in a  pressure cooker the meat will fall off the bone.

I saw this place in the main street. I wonder if they'll stock wild rabbit?

When I arrived in Ballan I had the vague expectation that I was going to talk to an old man about old skills and a dieing art. How wrong I was! Rabbit hunting and processing skills were very much alive. I never got to talk to Muzzy as he seemed to hold court for ages and I had become the special guest of the welcoming committee who was using me as an excuse to get the jukebox cranking. I left at midday before Dave was able to find a rabbit but I left feeling reassured that the skills necessary for dealing with hard times were guaranteed to survive.

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