I COME FROM A long line of non-hunters and vegetarians. I have never even fished for fear that I might hook one, until a recent trip to the Amazon where I did catch a piranha. Somehow it felt alright to hunt a predatory fish, but not a predatory animal. Yet, the thought of a hunt breakfast or a hunting luncheon never fails to evoke a memory of the jungle, of setting out at dawn to sight the tiger and then having a breakfast of omelette, toast, poori aloo, a ripe mango and strong tea.
Memory is a funny thing. It is a combination of what we experience in reality, and what we visualise while reading a particularly vivid description. In a 2003 study of 569 college students, 73 per cent shared a misperception that they had seen television footage on 11 September of the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Centre, when in reality, the footage was aired on 12 September. Nader, a neuroscientist, who shared this memory, believes that the very act of remembering can change our memories. If so, what if, while reading about a hunting luncheon described by Brillat-Savarin, one recalls trips to the jungle, and then creates a memory that is now an amalgam of the imagined and the real?
Since childhood, I have spent many a summer vacation in the jungles here in India, where I (like many others) carried my copy of Jim Corbett, Kenneth Anderson, Rudyard Kipling, Ruskin Bond, and Gerald Durrell.
In the ravine, ‘a small oak has greedily spread its webbed branches over the water; large silver bubbles rise in clusters from the spring’s bottom nestling in a thin, velvety moss. You fling yourself to the ground and drink your fill, but have no wish to rise again. You are in a shady place, breathing in the pungent dampness; you’re glad to be here while beyond you the branches burn with heat and literally turn yellow in the sun.’ (Ivan Turgenev, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album).
Or the 11-year-old Gerald Durrell’s midnight fishing expedition in Corfu with Taki, the local fisherman who snares a Scorpion fish and an octopus. ‘Tell your mother,’ he said, ‘to cook it with hot paprika and oil and potatoes and little marrows. It is very sweet.’
Durrell’s mouth-watering descriptions of the feasts his mother rustled up for Durrell’s brother’s (Lawrence Durrell) strange friends, Turgenev’s lyrical sketches from a hunter’s album, as well as a more laconic statement by Corbett who partook of ‘hot drink and food’ after he returned from a night vigil for a man-eating tiger, are attached, like a sucker to a rose plant, to the trunk of my memories.
More recently, while researching for a book on the walled ‘old city’ part of Hyderabad, I read descriptions of hunting luncheons hosted by the Nizam or by one of his nobles. This is what the Duke of Connaught and his entourage had for breakfast at Nawab Munir-ul-Mulk’s mansion. ‘The menu of the gentleman’s breakfast was, of course, perfectly orthodox but that served to the ladies deserves some detail. Moglai Breakfast: Pilaos – Yekhni Pilao, Kofta Pilao, Kushka-Plain Rice; Kabobs – Shikunpoor and Taz Kabob; Breads – Paratha, Kulcha, Lookmiya-Curry Puffs; Curries – Moorg Methi, Chigoor, Dhaeekikadi, and Kima Naranj; Pickles –Chutni and Achar; Sweets – Saveeyonka Moozafer, Chalkoleeyan, Badam Kalour, Vurki Samosa, Navish, and Toonki.’
It now seems like I have drunk cold kvas and eaten honeycomb on rye bread with Turgenev, observed dung beetles and collected blennies and blood-red starfish with Durrell, and partaken of breakfast with the Duchess of Connaught and the zenana ladies after successfully bagging a couple of leopards in the Nizam’s jungles.
The nostalgia created by the concept of a hunt breakfast or a luncheon is about experiencing leisure after facing danger. The closest one comes to it these days is a brunch on a Sunday with friends in New York after being mugged in Harlem. In the absence of a mugging, there is no resemblance. A hunt meal is consumed after you have stalked the tiger or some other wildlife alone or with someone, regardless of whether it is to kill or to observe. Adrenaline plus taste buds equals vividly tasty dishes. These days, adventure travel companies have cottoned on to the concept that good food and adventure ought to march arm in arm. Nobody wants to eat a mouldy crust of bread or beef jerky or some other dried up piece of meat or lentil, especially after a near brush with death. A restaurant in Colorado has tied up with Aspen Outfitting Company to sell adventure with a cooking lesson and a multi-course meal. It has the slogan: ‘You catch, we cook’.
A hunt meal is consumed after you have stalked the tiger regardless of whether it is to kill or to observe. Adrenaline plus taste buds equals tasty dishes
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Hunting itself need not involve killing. Think of how you may have crept along the jungle path in Corbett National Park with a ranger and spotted the pug marks of a tiger. It may be watching you from the bushes, and you carry on, hoping that the ranger is sufficiently skilled to provide a warning well before the attack. It is the sense of danger that provides a sharp edge to your senses including your taste buds. Adrenaline expands and sharpens the sense of taste, smell, and awareness, and after you return to the camp whole and alive, its remnants allow you to experience each element of a dish. You bask in the sunlight and…well, let me bring in the writer of the gourmand’s bible to tell us about it.
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in The Physiology of Taste, describes the great pleasures of the hunting-luncheon. The hunter’s ‘face has been caressed by the early morning breeze; his skill has served him well on occasion; the sun is about to stand at its peak in the sky;…a bit of shade attracts him; the grass is soft beneath him, and murmur of a nearby stream suggests that he leave cooling in it the flask meant for his refreshment.’ The hunter pulls out with tranquil pleasure the slices of golden-crusted bread, unwraps the cold chicken and places the chunk of Gruyere cheese or Roquefort meant for his dessert. A more elaborate meal would include crisp white wine or delectable liquors carried by lackeys in ice-filled leather satchels, and make a ravishing coolness run through one’s veins.
Does this not bring with it a whiff of a bygone time when one reclined on velvety grass under an oak or a peepul tree and took a drink of champagne cooling in a flacon in an icy stream to wash down a grape or brie?
Well, it is not just leisure but a particular type of leisure, won after putting one’s life at stake. We have all read descriptions about how danger sharpens the senses. So why should it not intensify the experience of one’s taste buds when it certainly builds up the appetite?
Hunters say that the quail or the duck or the deer tastes even better if one has shot it. In Cakes and Ale, Edward Spencer gives us a mouth watering description of a lark dish at a shooting luncheon. ‘Stuff a dozen larks with a forcemeat made from their own livers chopped, a little shallot, parsley, yolk of egg, salt, bread crumbs and one green chili chopped and divided amongst the twelve. Brown in a stew pan, and then stew gently in a good gravy to which has been added a glass of Burgundy.’ This, he says, is a plat fit for an emperor, and there will be no subsequent danger of his hitting a beater or a dog.
This is the antithesis to what we know today about the science of meat. The chemical analysis of muscle tissue has found that stress experienced by the animal before it dies changes the acid levels in meat, affecting the colour, the taste and the texture. There is a technical term, ‘dark cutting meat’, for beef damaged by stress, making it taste, in one cattle farmer’s words, ‘like the sole of your boot.’ So why does a similar thing not occur for animals in the wild? This is because unlike domesticated animals who are treated inhumanely for hours or months before being slaughtered, a deer or a duck in the wild can be shot and killed instantly. A clean, quick kill provides the best-quality venison, according to hunters.
In today’s world of frantic networkers, the hunter remains more in tune with nature than an urban denizen. Hunting luncheons are the last bastion of a leisure class that is fast disappearing today. My point is not that we have to march out to the jungle and shoot a few black bucks or spear an octopus or snag a piranha in the river in order to be able to experience the intensity of its meat. We can experience the same thrill without killing the animal. What I am saying is that we should bring back that notion of leisure spiced with an experience of danger in nature.