Dreaming the Dream of Icarus
The air is crisp, and the leaves are yellow. The time has come. Sound the bells and blow the horns for the most anticipated game of the year—hunting. Isn’t it glamorous—la chasse? It is Downton Abbey all over again. The tweed jacket and the team of servants, the barking dogs and the smoking guns—Lordy me! The scent of blood is enough to drive us wild.
Hunted is the gibier—the fancy French word for the wild game: colvert (Mallard duck), bécasse (woodcock), gélinotte (grouse), faisan (pheasant), perdrix (partridge), pigeon ramier (wood pigeon), and anything and everything that can be caught in the mountains, the fields and the forests. In the autumn, the menu goes wild and the customers wilder. Some fattened liver of an obese duck will no longer impress us, gourmets, at all. We want novelty, we want rarity and we demand gibier. Gibier are hunted, not farmed, so that you cannot call up on a Friday morning and expect to have one falling from the sky for dinner.
Deer, boar and the occasional bear, and maybe even a badger are all game in Japan. However, the people-in-the-know go for the feathered kind—for the faisandage, which, translated into plain English, is “aging” or “tenderizing” or plain “rotting”—depending on your perspective. In the old days before the refrigeration, people used to hang the whole birds in the cellars, and just like any carcass, the bacteria would start decomposing the meat even in the low temperature, and it is said that the most vulnerable parts, the organs, would add that extra “spiciness” to the rest of the body. Now, now, do not wrinkle, pinch or thumb your nose. Blue cheese, fish sauce, miso…the list goes on and on. Fermented foods are packed with umami—scientifically proven. So why not some fermented meat, too? There is no difference between a dead bird and a dead cow or a dead fish after all: look how people pay up for aged sirloin in New York and even more for aged tuna in Tokyo.
Many mistakenly believe that something caught in the wild would taste “wild”. However, that is far from the truth as pheasant and partridge are no more darker than a turkey, and a wild duck does not taste wilder than a domesticated duck. Hence, to truly get into the season and taste the wild, one has to go a bit wilder indeed—if not a woodcock, which fetches its own wild price due to the prohibition in France (along with ortolans)—then at least a grouse.
“Here is your bird!”
The grouse, fully wrapped in fluffy feathers, appeared asleep—in a bed of Financial Times, where the crossword puzzle was notably untouched.
“From Scotland!” sang Madam Shino in her cheery soprano, fluttering the pink paper, as if to wake the bird.
“I undercook it,” said Chef Shino, “or the flavor will fly away.” Greetings done, he went back into the kitchen. Left alone, his boisterous wife whispered quickly, “I personally cannot stand the smell!” and she, too, withdrew with the bird and the paper, taking the crossword away.
Saignant—was what Chef Shino meant. The grouse appeared roséand raw, its hairy hand reaching for the pink papery shroud, now discarded. Eating from the shoulder to the leg—singular, yes, as it was only half a bird and no head—was a woody walk in the highland: crisp gizzard and brittle bones, earthy liver, smell of piney sprig of rosemary and the faint tang of the breast and the bitter hint around the thigh bones; all resting on a mushy bed of sweetly sautéed scallions and spinach. As for the mushrooms—well, they had best been left alone in the foggy forest.
“I am not so sure about that…faisandage thing,” Chef Kimura tilted his head, pondering and wondering and, generally, disagreeing at his L’Atelier de Guignol et Madelon. A naysayer who is not a blind worshipper. “I don’t think that taste is particularly pleasing; I mean, it was pre-fridge and all that.” That taste refers to the fermented sourness and the dirty depth, which, to the connoisseurs, are indispensable and inalienable to the completion of the sauce salmi.
This time the bird was local. The Japanese duck—wigeon—arrived from Niigata, a prefecture famous for growing the best rice in Japan. The ducks and farmers have long been engaged in a war of rice; however, recently, these former foes have decided to join hands in an effort to push for a more sustainable farming. The farmers allow the ducks to peck at the pests and to shit in the paddies (to be used as fertilizer); and once they have harvested the rice, they too harvest the ducks. A happy food chain—and organic, too.
Plumage plucked, the naked body of the wigeon was covered in permanent goose bumps.
“Don’t worry about getting all the hairs. We will put them into hot water first.” Bath time. Skinny dipping the birds, holding by its long neck, feeling its vertebra extending under its dead weight.
Chef Kimura patted it down quickly and made an incision along the line of the abdominal cavity; then with a sleight of hand, separates the lower body, exposing a tiny rib cage, that looked uncannily human.
“You have to open the gizzard and wash it clean,” he said as he pulled out the organs, “see this?” In Japanese, gizzard is called “sand liver” for a good reason: it is usually full of grainy sand as birds gobble, rather than chew.
Rather than sand, however, the gizzard of this widgeon was stuffed with rice grains. Cause of death: gluttony.
“Don’t pluck the head, so I know which one is which.” Beauty is indeed only skin deep. The naked ducks, wigeons and pintails looked quite alike; without eyebrows or eyelashes, it was easy to make a Frankenstein out of different bird body parts. But, too late. Most of the harm was already done: the greedy wigeon was left with a Mohawk hairdo. Well, it would surely do as identification.
Next time the hapless bird appeared, it was only the lower body—but with a new pie shell covering its organs. Despite the garlicky and herbal beurre à la bourguignonne, the whiff of soil and sand was unmistakable in the gizzard, even if it came from a rice-loving wigeon. One curled claw reached forward in a mimicry of ET; while the other puffed up its webbing, as if in a last attempt to fly. Emotionally charged moment—crushed by the crunches on the small bones. Yes, that was Mr. Mohawk.
After finishing the lower body, came the upper, in a grand opus—rôti de siffleur en sauce salmi. Five hundred years of French cuisine—counting from the arrival of Catherine de Medici—were distilled in this one dish: searing, roasting, deglazing and saucing. Since wild birds are small, the chef must be quick, leaving the meat red and rare with the blood still bloody on the bones. The blood should not congeal, otherwise it is overcooked, because it needs to melt into the red wine and the fond de volaille, which, by the way, is not from a box of Maggie’s chicken cubes. Timing must be precise; movements concise. The sauce is made in the very short time while the bird is resting after the roasting: debone, deglaze and then sieve the sauce. Techniques refined over dynasties, wars and serendipities. Traditions born and died and then re-discovered. Barbaric yesterday, sophisticated today.
The sauce salmi was smooth and luscious: rich with the iron of the organs and the acidity of the wine. The breast, beautifully rosé, provided a conduit to a wilder universe; even without the wings, the sprit soared through the roof to the sky. The blood of the wigeon tasted warm, just like the blood that coursed through the vein, expanding slowly in the mouth and reaching far into the lungs; and, with each breath, the life now extinguished nourished the liver, caressed the stomach and rejuvenated the heart.
The foie was played into a pâté, smeared on a thinnest triangle of brioche, and grilled in butter, resulting in a muddily sweet unguent of milk chocolate. The head, now fully plucked, was dissected in half, exposing the brownish brain and greyed tongue. Taking it by the beak, the teeth bit through the thin skull; the tongue finding another smaller, gelatinous tongue. The brain could be best described as ricotta—albeit two-days old, where the water and freshness had been drained away, leaving a thick wisdom behind.
Hunting is the most ancient game; it is also the most fundamental game—humans vs. nature. We have been playing thisgame forever, but we were not natural hunters. We can neither run very fast; nor can we see very well. Our arms are weak and our teeth are blunt. We have no hide to hide behind and no venom to vent. However, we were bad losers. We abided our time at the edge of the forest and scavenged the leftovers and stole the occasional bone. While we watched and waited, our brains became bigger, and we started beating the beasts at their own game. Now, we no longer have to toil the soil nor do we have to hunt. Head instead to the nearest supermarket and take a stroll down the aisle: chicken skinned, beef ground, lamb trimmed, and turkey stuffed. No fur, no hair and no bones, and most importantly, no bloody guts and no staring eyes. Or simpler still, cut the chase and the cooking—just reach for the protein shake, why don’t you.
Meat itself is no longer a luxury: marbled cows, branded pigsand even chickens fed on Chinese medicine. Japan, the land of gastronomy, has got them all; in fact, every single prefecture has got at least one “special” meat—and there are 47 prefectures in Japan. All are nicely penned so that you do not hear them oink or smell their stink. The only hunting you ever do, if you must, is bargain hunting with the right hunting gear: cash, credit card, UnionPay and even taxare welcome!
Until recently, gibier had been just a little too wild for the mild palate of Japan; game meat only a curio, a connoisseur’s item, to be savored once or twice, but nothing to be devoured. Killing to eat, Mon Dieu, such barbarism! The bloody insolence of serving anything other than artfully and artificially purebred broiler chicken! Definitely not fit for the sensitive soul or the delicate stomach. Rustic, rural charm is all very well in moderate doses and during vacations, if from a safe distance in an air-conditioned vehicle; but all the gory details of eating a dead animal…definitely not PG13 material.
However, the wind has changed again. Wild boars have been coming down into the gardens, deer into the fields, and some badgers have even decided to co-habit with humans in their own houses. They roam the streets, raid the trash and they defecate in the backyard. The Japanese are known to be meek, but they do draw a line at their doorstep; and when that is shitted… The government has now decreed them “vermin” and command their extermination—not in such blunt words, but in encouraged consumption.
As for the people, overfed on wagyu, nature starts to look a bit greener on the other side and a whole lot more interesting. Dining at French restaurants has become commonplace, and it no longer serves up that sense of prestige as it once did; eating at a Michelin-star restaurant is not enough, you need to pay for the truffles to be shaved, the wines to be poured, and gibier to be presented. Otherwise, it is not Instagram-worthy.
Hubris. We got plenty of that, thanks to the psychologists and all those self-help gurus. Look how far we have come on our two legs. We may not have been good hunters, but we surely are good walkers. And, walking is good for us. Even the respected Hippocrates has respectably said, “walking is man’s best medicine.”
But the problem is: we do not know when to stop. We have reached the North Pole and then the South Pole, but that was not far enough. Faster, farther—we wanted to go so we made trains, cars, then, voilà,airplanes and rockets. Walk—walk on! Walking is healthy (until some doctors decide otherwise), but with the pollution and potential dangers lurking around every bend—snakes, mosquitoes and all those crazy motorists—it is better to stay on the treadmill, no? Besides, there is really nowhere else to walk now—the mountains are eroded; the beaches are trashed; and that park over there has been turned into another parking lot for another shopping mall. Oops, we did it again,and we have gone a bit too far.
We have reached the end of the road. We can backtrack now or we can walk on and all over Mars. Fly, fly into the sun. Dreaming of the sun, yearning for the sun. Trying—even if we know we will die trying; still we reach for the impossible.
But in the meantime, pray to George Carlin (and maybe Joe Pesci too just to make sure), and chant "Save the Planet":
Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails…The Planet is fine, the people are fucked.”
All the pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and all the other colorful chemical compounds streaming into the rivers and soiling the soil: we can save the Earth so we can save ourselves. If that does not convince you, then:
We are what we eat: garbage in, garbage out.
Address: 117-4 Kinuyacho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 604-0804
L’Atelier de Guignol et Madelon
Address: Nishitenma, 3 Chome−6−27 2F, Osaka, Osaka, Japan
No pun intended, as it is a typical Japanese expression.
Before anyone raises an objection, yes, her mother was French.
Even 13years ago, there were 19 branded pigs in Hokkaido, and 28 in Gunma.
Technically, it is a tax-deductible donation to a chosen region, but it is called “hometown tax” in Japan; furthermore, taxpayer can in fact choose any region. As a return for such donation, the regional government will send a “gift”—usually edible specialty of the region.
Do I really need to say where it came from? Britney Spears.
Watch “Save the Planet” on YouTube, this minute!