Cook the Books - A Year of Practiculture

. September 08, 2015
Photography by David Parker.
Cook the Books - A Year of Practiculture

How practical is 'practiculture'? In this week's cookbook review David Parker braves an ominous sky to smoke quail on an outdoor fire for a recipe from Rohan Anderson's 'A Year of Practiculture'.

In a recent Radio NZ interview Rohan Anderson skirted around labels like 'sustainable living' or 'self–sufficiency' calling sustainability “a paradox”. He admitted that he buys things like flour, soap and toilet paper but estimates that 80 per cent of the food he eats he grows, hunts or forages himself. Instead of coming across as some sort of tree–hugging hippy living an unattainable fairytale life, he sounds down to earth, rational – normal, even. He admits that reading books on self–sufficiency intimidated him for a long time and didn't really sound like much fun, but just growing a lot of vegetables for yourself is actually pretty easy!

Practiculture seems to be a word of his own making – at least, I can’t find it in any dictionary. Rohan defines it as “A lifestyle choice of practical living”. I'm not sure how 'practical' it would be for most of us to give up our job, move to the country and start growing and hunting for all of our own food though. I think maybe “almost self–sufficiency” is a more accurate description of his lifestyle, but maybe not so catchy for a book title. In A Year Of Practiculture, Rohan takes us through a year in his life of food with recipes accompanying pieces on his general ethos around food and cooking and little focus pieces on seasonal activities like bottling fruit or curing meat.

I wanted to cook something that made me feel like I was really embracing the outdoors lifestyle, but I didn't have time to grow or hunt something before my deadline. Instead, I decided to cook some quails on a fire outside. I'm not sure if there is a quail season, the recipe is from the autumn section of the book, but I was buying my quails from a local organic butcher so no problem there – except the price! At $9.50 a bird this whole practiculture thing sounded appealing. I decided to third the recipe and cook four instead of 12. I think either Rohan is getting smaller quails or his portion sizes are a bit off; he suggests 12 quails for four people. For the sake of properly 'taste testing' I managed to eat two but would've been happy with one quail in the context of a meal.

I started by making the marinade, crushing black pepper, garlic, thyme and a jalapeno in a mortar and pestle. Then I added the olive oil, paprika and salt and combined into the paste.

The quails then needed to be spatchcocked. Rohan says he does his with a pair of scissors, so I followed suit, it was very easy if you ignore the one quail that I cut down the wrong side of, which made it take much longer to cook through! Then I rubbed the quails with the marinade and left them overnight. (Well, because the weather was looking really bad for cooking things on campfires I left them for a couple of hours while I found some wood and built a fire!)

We don't have a stash of fire wood at home as we have one of those newfangled pellet fires that burns condensed pellets of wood (it's supposedly better for the environment and more efficient) but I managed to barter with my neighbour that owns some orchards over the road for some apple tree wood – he got some strawberry plants in return. A very 'practiculture' move I thought! Apple wood is renowned for being great to smoke with, but it's hard to come by as apple trees don't often get cut down.

While I let the fire burn down to a bed of embers I put together a metal clamp grill... But when I re-read the recipe I realised it was supposed to be a camp grill. Well my little clamp grill worked too! I bought two cooling racks for $7 and wired them together to hold the birds in. I should've put some bricks either side of the fire and floated the cooling racks over the fire, but this worked just fine!

Halfway through cooking them I felt a light drizzle and the sky was looking particularly threatening, but the rain managed to hold back until I was done. I had to cut the three quails I spatchcocked properly free from the cage but left the other one to cook a little longer. They cooked surprisingly well; I've never really cooked anything over a campfire before, but it was really fun!

The quails were delicious. So amazingly smoky, thanks to the apple wood, but spicy and sweet, almost channeling American barbecue influences, even without any added sugar. I was worried that cooking them over a fire would dry the quail out, but they were incredibly juicy too. Did I mention so wonderfully smoky? Plus they were so easy to do and so easy to cook! Who said practiculture had to be hard?

The Book Cooked
Level of expertise required: Somewhere around the middle. Not everyone is going to be making their own chorizo or curing their own pancetta, but most of the recipes are pretty simple. Rohan put in a disclaimer at the front of the book that he is “no amazing groundbreaking chef”, but I guess when you've spent all day in the garden you don't have the energy to spend all evening in the kitchen. 
How many trips to the supermarket required? Well if you were buying this book to begin your new practiculture lifestyle I'd say just one: to buy salt, flour, olive oil, toilet paper, soap and other lifes necessities like Rohan admits to! But if, as I suspect most of us would do, you're going to dream of a new simple life but maybe just keep your current job and cook a few of these interesting recipes. There are some ingredients, such as venison, kangaroo even quail that you probably aren't likely to find in your local supermarket, but for the most part it seems like the ingredients should be readily available from specialist butchers etc. And if they're not, you could just grow, forage or hunt your own!
How closely did the dishes resemble the pictures? 9/10 – the styling is pretty rustic and I imagine most would be easy to replicate.
Ease of reading: Very! There is a lot of information and I wish I had time to get deeper into this book, but Rohan has managed to keep it a lighthearted and funny read. I just glanced over to a random page and the last sentence of his directions on how to make chorizo sausages was, “Now, go back over those instructions and count how many penis and sex innuendos I inserted”. 
Pretty on the coffee table or designed to be battered through overuse? If you're serious about becoming a ‘practiculturist’ or being almost self–sufficient this would go well amongst a shelf of other books. There is just too much information to cover for this to become an all–encompassing bible but it touches on the main topics and then contextualises them in recipes. This is certainly more on the recipe book side, which is great for the rest of us. I think it'd be a great cookbook companion for anyone cooking seasonally, whether it's food you've bought or grown, hunted, foraged for yourself.

A Year of Practiculture by Rohan Anderson is published by Penguin Random House - find out more or order a copy here.