From sweet prickly pear margarites to fresh salsa and spicy sausage, Austin master chef Jesse Griffiths and his crew forage a feast
Photography by Jody Horton
“Cow.” Mando, our adroit and soft-spoken guide, calmly points directly in front of the roofless Suburban. A beige head with tall, twitching ears pokes up above the waist-high grass. It’s a large female nilgai antelope, about the same size as the herd of cow nilgai that ran behind the truck just a minute before, eluding us. They pop out of the vicious south Texas brush and are typically gone in seconds, if you even see them in the first place. This one, though, doesn’t seem to be aware of our presence. The wind is in our faces, and we sit still. “Take it.”
Our drive south from Austin was mostly spent discussing this esoteric animal and the distinct region that the nilgai has adopted as a new home. Originally from India, the nilgai antelope was brought to the vast King Ranch in south Texas around 1930 for hunting and has become a native of the area in the decades that followed. Standing over 6 feet tall and sometimes weighing more than 800 pounds, this is not a waifish gazelle — but rather an imposing, yet graceful pony-sized animal. The huge bulls have a distinctive bluish hue that earned them the name “blue bull.” Most people don’t believe me when I describe the unlikely nilgai, picturing in their heads some sort of Dr. Seuss creation.
Sloan, a master butcher in the old German enclave of Fredericksburg in Texas’ Hill Country, is our hunter today on the sprawling Yturria Ranch. I’ve invited him for a few reasons. He is an accomplished hunter, is an expert with a knife, loves food and is pleasant company. I know he won’t miss a shot, and as this cow nilgai slowly walks across the road, I know that if she stops for even a second, we will have our dinner. She ambles toward the impenetrable wall of mesquite and cat’s claw bushes. We all hold our breath waiting for her to reveal but a moment of broadside vulnerability. She pauses. He fires.
The nilgai piles up about 50 yards into the overgrown brush. Years of drought have recently been followed in pure Texas style by a deluge of rains, restoring the grasses and giving cover to myriad animals, from quail to enormous jack rabbits to lizards, and the resulting boom of predators, like great horned owls, caracaras and coyotes. In winters when the water pools on the miles-long Plan Grande, thousands of migratory geese and ducks will roost and feed here at the terminus of their flight from Canada.
The tall grasses make seeing off the roads cut through the brush difficult, but the deep-magenta blood trail of the nilgai is seen easily against the contrasting verdancy of the prairie grass. Lying on the ground, she is huge to me, as I am used to the smaller white-tailed deer and feral hogs of my home in central Texas. This nilgai weighs about 300 pounds and will provide us with lots of very, very good meat, which is the whole point. Despite its inherent harshness, the land does offer up other bounties, too; we pick ripe cactus fruit, fragrant wild mint, wild grapes, yucca blossoms, fiery chile pequin and pomegranates to be used in a meal celebrating the hunt. Along with the wild foods foraged, we are sticking to the regional basics of beans, tortillas and fruit from the massive agricultural areas just to our south.
With the nilgai now gutted, skinned and hung in a tall cooler to chill and dry, we retire to eat tacos — corn tortillas filled with shredded wild boar stewed with chile pequin — drink a lot of wine and get a little rest before getting up again in pursuit of a nilgai bull.
Dawn brings a still humidity, punctuated by the distinct calls of the brightly colored whistling ducks that roost in the oak motts. We set out again and drive, enjoying the arrival of a coastal breeze, and see a few nilgai in the distance. Along with the nilgai, gangs of turkeys and plentiful white-tailed deer, we see snowy white scimitar-horned oryx and monstrous waterbucks, members of other species that were brought in for hunting by other ranches decades ago and have since escaped and proliferated. This is like being on safari, and, to be clear, these animals are wild. This is not a “high fence” amusement park where hunters can come and shoot game gathered at timed corn feeders. The 150-year-old Yturria Ranch allows very few hunters on it, is bordered by a few low-strung strands of barbed wire, and has not a single feeder on it. The animals have self-sustaining, established populations and thrive in the climate here which is so similar to their native one. It is a special place, inhabited only by tough living things from around the world that are able to make it in this complex environment.
It is almost at the end of our morning, and just as we are about to admit short-term defeat, a bull is spotted. We have seen quite a few bulls, but most spooked long before Sloan and Mando were able to even get out of the truck. This one, however, does not see us and continues feeding. I hang back — one less moving body to alert the animal — and I watch the next minutes unfold through binoculars like a captivating movie. Mando takes the lead, with Sloan close behind, and they make a single-file beeline to the bull, keeping their outlines minimized, putting the random mesquite tree between them and the antelope. Mando produces a shooting stick — a wooden tripod to steady the gun — and I watch Sloan shoulder his .30-06 rifle at about 150 yards. The bull looks up, then resumes feeding. The shot will come soon.
It goes in this order: a puff of smoke from the rifle, a tumbling nilgai and then the audible shot reaches me a couple of hundred yards behind the hunters. I see legs in the air, which is a very good sign considering this animal likely exceeds 500 pounds and they are notoriously tough to kill, which is why Mando has his own high-powered rifle trained on the bull — in case he gets up and requires another shot. He doesn’t.
The bull is massive, much larger than the cow of the previous day. We get him skinned, gutted and hung in the cooler. He weighs almost 600 pounds.
The heat of the day makes this an opportune time to begin butchering the cow nilgai from the day before back at the kitchen. We start by cutting and trimming skirt and flank steaks, cleaning them of connective tissue and dropping them in a marinade of olive oil, soy sauce, garlic, lime and a little sugar — a classic Tex-Mex fajita seasoning that happens to work beautifully with game. The heart, barely missed by Sloan’s bullet, receives the same treatment for grilling. Next, the big bone-in chops are removed, followed by the tenderloins, which will be served raw in a version of ceviche. The trim is separated out to make spicy sausages from the chorizo family known as longanizas, distinct in their increased spiciness. All of these things will be grilled tonight over smoldering oak and mesquite under an old oak in the far reaches of the ranch, miles from any house.
We start with strong margaritas made from smoky mescal, sweet prickly pear juice and the tart, small limes favored in this part of the world. The ceviche — sour with the same limes and made crisp with the addition of raw cucumber, onion, radish and foraged yucca blossoms — follows. The main event happens on the grill, with the hypnotic phenomenon that is slowly charring meats, always captivating in its simplicity. Our roadside purchase of a gargantuan watermelon ends the night, and we begin carefully packing the pretty handcrafted plates borrowed from the ranch for travel back down the dark and bumpy road.
Leaving the openness of this corner of the Lone Star State is always tough. It’s hard to describe south Texas and its spatial charms; it’s a hard land populated by people and animals strong enough to endure it. But the land gives up, a little bit here and there, always just enough to survive, or even unabashedly throw down once in a while with a sweaty bacchanal. We leave with the mutual and unspoken desire to return as soon as the freezer full of nilgai has been depleted, which will be a long time for sure. The drive north involves six long hours of scrub brush monotony, Border Patrol checkpoints and big-city traffic when we hit San Antonio, then Austin. We are back in the city, safe and bored, convincing ourselves that a wintertime goose hunt on the Plan Grande is in order.