Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bon appetit

Weka have been in the news recently. The Department of Conservation is planning a mass extermination of these cheeky little flightless native birds on two West Coast islands to protect the rare geckos, skinks and, yes, leeches that also live there. Apparently over the last 100 years the weka have become very inbred and, according to a bearded, weathered man who's familiar with them, and looks a tough old bird himself, he's seen some with eyes that are "frightening".
I often saw these birds in my youth, when I was tramping or away with my mother rock-hounding as in this photo when we were on the Coast to do a spot of gold-panning. (Yes, I found some colour, which I carefully strained into a handkerchief - and later blew my nose on.) They were always poking into things, playful and curious like lowland keas, and we filmed one once trying to abscond with a bright yellow towelling hat that was too big for the weka, which was the size of a small chicken, to lift off the ground, so it kept stepping on it and tripping over. How we laughed.

But it appears they're less common these days, and a man near Christchurch has been thinking laterally and wants to breed them for the table, on the premise that if people can make money from something, it will never be allowed to die out. Cynical, but true, no doubt.

He claims they taste (surprise!) better than chicken, and it made me think about all the less regular foods I've eaten. It's not a startling list compared to some people's, I'm sure: emu, ostrich, kangaroo, crocodile and camel are pretty ordinary these days, and I can buy most of them at the supermarket. I could buy goat at the supermarket too: I recently ate it for the first time in the Cook Islands (not India). In the wilds of Tasmania, I was embarrassed to find myself eating barbecued wallaby as a cute little baby one hopped past. In France and elsewhere (in Pagan, in Burma, at a back-street restaurant I was once asked, "You want meat? We have chicken or frog") I've had frogs' legs and snails, naturellement - the former ridiculous, nibbling bones like matchsticks (reminding me of Tom Hanks in 'Big' with the baby corn), the latter a - not unwelcome - let-down since all you can taste is the garlic butter they're prepared in.

In Maré, in New Caledonia's Loyalty Islands, I ate fruit bat and heartily regretted it: dark, gamey and rather tough; and also coconut crab, which looked unnervingly like a giant head louse, but tasted divine. And in Peru, of course, roast guinea pig, also regretted because it was chewy and unpleasant, and though in the restaurant in Cuzco it was presented jointed, I'd couldn't forget the cooked ones I'd already seen in Pisac: whole, shiny brown and looking unnervingly like a miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex. Yuk.

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