Quail Hunting In The Sisquoc

I have to begin this post with saying as a person who eats 90% of their meals vegetarian, and 85% of those meals vegan, I am sensitive to those who do not agree with hunting. In fact, for many years I would have included myself as one of those people. I mainly choose to eat this way for two reasons. First, I listen to my body. And I simply feel better not eating much meat or dairy. Second, it is my way of boycotting the way the majority of meat and dairy is produced in this country. I know I am just one person, but hopefully I can make some small difference by voting with my dollar.

So how did I come to the point where I wanted to explore what hunting was all about? Well, recently I read the Faviken cookbook, and it helped me to understand that we can have a symbiotic and beautiful relationship with the natural world around us. It was inspiring to learn that age old traditions are still upheld in today’s culinary world, in every detail imaginable. This includes hunting, foraging, and farming for many things on your menu.

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I was lucky enough to live on a ranch in Santa Barbara. And it was here that I met Tony, the owner of the ranch. I knew he hunted on a regular basis, and asked if I could join him on his next outing. He told me that he and Graham (owner of Los Padres Outfitters who runs horseback tours and excursions) were going to the Sisquoc to go quail hunting for three days and I was welcome to join; I quickly accepted his invitation!

There was a group of six of us that headed on horseback into the San Rafael wilderness. We unloaded the horses and gear at the Nira trailhead, and started off the Manzana trail. Our final destination was about 8 miles into the wilderness, to a small cabin owned by a friend of Tony’s. The region is so remote that only a few inhabitants live on the trail.

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The cabin we were staying at was located in between Dabney Cabin and the Manzana school house (as shown below)

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The trail was long and winding. Full of beautiful scenery, and rugged terrain.

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After about 2 hours of riding, we finally came upon the cabin. The billowing of smoke from the chimney was a welcome sight as it was quite chilly out.

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Luckily the owner of the cabin was a skilled craftsman and had welded an old buoy into a fireplace. This thing was AMAZING, and heated the entire cabin. The outside temp the evening we got in read 18 degrees!

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   We unpacked the horses and our gear, and settled in for the night. There were no phones, no computers, no hot water, a few hours of light from a gas powered generator, and some good whisky to keep us warm.  Spirits were high as we tucked in for an early morning wake up call for the hunt.

As dawn broke, the horses began to stir and the dogs at our feet started to whine with excitement for the new day. I was in charge of breakfast for the morning , and made some Johnny Cakes with a spiced apple topping. Johnny Cakes are like pancakes but made with cornmeal. The apples were picked fresh from Tony’s ranch the day before we left and the cakes were cooked to crisp perfection in the cast iron skillet.

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Here’s the simple recipe that was a perfect fit for the rustic setting:

1/2 cup flour

1 cup cornmeal

1 to 2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 cup hot milk

1 tablespoon shortening

Combine the ingredients, heat oil in the skillet. Drop batter in hot skillet, and flip after golden brown

For the apple topping:

2 lbs apples, diced

1T cinnamon

3T brown sugar

1t nutmeg

.5t salt

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Heat in large sauce pot until apples soften. Serve warm.

After breakfast we packed up the horses and headed to the Sisquoc riverbed, just a short ride from our cabin. Along the way we picked up three friends; donkeys that were living in the area. As natural pack animals, they were happy to join our posse for the day.

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I felt very luck to be joining such skilled huntsmen. Dave, Graham, and Tony had been hunting most of their lives, and were excellent trackers. They were able to teach me a lot about how to read animal tracks, what to look for on the hunt, and gun safety.

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One of the most surprising things I learned from the hunt, was how many parallels it shared with being an athlete. To be a successful hunter you have to operate in the moment and rely on all of your senses. It can be physically demanding, and when hunting in a group it is imperative to communicate, and work together towards a common goal…these are also parallels I draw to working in a kitchen.

In the end, the hunt was a success!

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I’m looking forward to the next time I can go out with Graham and Tony. They shared many stories of living off of the land, and being closely connected with the natural world around them. It was refreshing and energizing being able to get off the grid for a few days, and I feel I have a closer understanding of what it is to have an active role in my food system. I have the utmost respect for the quail that we caught, and no part of the beautiful bird went to waste.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
~John Muir

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