Wild Man, Wild Food
Eating wild food, understanding the landscape - it's
The Ecologist, August 2006
‘OK then’ I say to Fergus, with a challenge
in my voice, ‘what about badger?’ I’m
joking, really. Badger indeed. Looks like the joke’s
on me though.
‘Badger?’ says Fergus, his eyes on the
road as he drives me into the Kent countryside. ‘Many
times. There’s no rhyme or reason in badger. Sometimes
it tastes really gamey and uriney, even if it’s
fresh. It can be excellent though.’ I look at
him as he drives. He’s definitely serious.
‘I’ve got this friend’, Fergus continues,
‘who’s so strait-laced, he barely eats pasta.
I made him this burger one day, with the meat and all
sorts of herbs, and he liked it. He said “this
burger’s great. What is it?” I said I’ll
give you fifty guesses. He got to about 30 and he gave
up. When I told him it was badger, he actually wasn’t
Probably a good thing at that stage, I say.
‘I used badger intestines once to make some
chipolatas’ continues Fergus cheerily. ‘They
were so difficult. It took me hours just to make nine
chipolatas. Then when I put them in the pan they all
exploded because I’d forgotten to prick them’
Fergus Drennan is a remarkable man. To him, badger
intestine sausages are all in a day’s work: not
a big deal; barely worth remarking upon. Fergus is a
professional forager – one of a handful of people
in Britain who can literally make themselves a living
from the land. Fergus is an expert in what nature provides.
Send him out into an ordinary field, the edge of a railway
track, an old quarry or even a beach, and he can rustle
you up a square meal in minutes. At any time of the
year, Fergus knows what grows where, how to find it
and how to cook it. He also eats badger, but only if
someone else has run it over first.
‘I’m actually a vegetarian, mostly’
he says, ‘in the sense that I won’t kill
anything or buy meat myself. But I will eat roadkill,
if it’s fresh. Mainly I’ll eat pheasant,
squirrel and rabbit. Squirrel reminds me of lamb. To
me, it’s common sense. It’s been estimated
that ten million birds, twenty thousand foxes and fifty
thousand badgers are killed on the roads every year.
I calculated that if you assume that two million of
those birds will be edible, and that a badger would
feed six people, that’s about two million ninety
thousand meals there, going to waste.’
He pulls up at a red light, puts the handbrake on
and grins at me.
‘Obviously I’m quite extreme’, he
Fergus’s foraging life began early. As a child
he would wander the countryside with a copy of the naturalist
Richard Mabey’s classic book ‘Food For Free’,
sampling nature’s wares. If in doubt, he says,
he would pick something, eat a bit of it and see what
it tasted like and what happened as a result. Later,
Fergus spent his three years at university living in
a tent and eating what he found in the fields. Having
graduated, the last thing he wanted to do was get himself
an office job; he wanted to be out foraging, as he had
been for years. He decided to see if he could make something
of it and, together with a business partner, he set
up an experimental company which sold his wild foods
at farmers markets and began providing them to restaurants.
Now, having struck out on his own, Fergus runs his
own business – Wildman Wild Food. As organic food,
farmers markets and local produce explode in popularity
all over the country, Fergus’s hobby seems like
a logical next step. You don’t, after all, get
much more local, organic and fresh than this. Wild food,
it seems, is an idea whose time may have come.
I’ve come down to Kent for the day to be shown
the ropes. Fergus has promised to take me out into the
fields and shores around his home town of Canterbury
, where we will gather and then cook our lunch and dinner.
I’m not sure quite what to expect, but Fergus
turns out to be in his early thirties, affable, understated
and brimming with knowledge. I know he’s the real
thing when he takes me to his car. The passenger seat
is strewn with garlic mustard leaves, and an earwig
makes a run for it as I go to sit down. The front bumper
is held on with bits of string – the inevitable
result, Fergus tells me, of scanning the fields for
fungi as he drives rather than watching the road. Half
a puffball fungus is wedged under the boot, so that
it will spread its spores as he drives, hopefully creating
more puffballs which Fergus can later find and eat.
It’s clear that, for Fergus, this is not so
much a hobby, or even a job, as a passion.
‘So many of my friends are constantly criticising
this country’, he says. ‘You know, “I’ve
gotta get out, it’s all going to the dogs”,
and all the rest of it. But for me, this is what I do
– I feel such a part of it through this that I
could never leave.’ Foraging, says Fergus, is
not just about food – it’s about understanding
the landscape and the locality; appreciating the specialness
of the everyday. It’s about belonging.
This is why I wanted to meet Fergus, and learn from
him. I’ve always been interested in the value
of the everyday landscape, and I’ve always wondered
why hardly anyone else seems to care. Most people these
days shop at the supermarket and take weekend breaks
in Barcelona . They can’t tell a red campion from
a strand of bindweed and they’re not much interested.
Why should they be? That stuff’s just, well, ordinary.
Meanwhile, we environmentalists are often not much better,
with our talk of climate change and tropical forests,
and the tendency amongst some of our number to jet off
to international conferences, at which we angst over
why nobody seems to care about ‘the environment’
‘The environment’, of course, is and always
has been just outside our front door. These days, as
we seek out new farmers markets and sign up to organic
box schemes, locality seems to be making a comeback
– but even then, it’s often purchased, packaged:
consumed. Most of us are still passive observers;
we leave it either to Tesco’s or to the local
organic farmer to do the work for us. We just pay for
This has long bothered me, as it bothers Fergus. This
is why I have an allotment, and bang on about it at
every opportunity. This is why I used to look in supermarket
skips on Sunday evenings (you’d be amazed what
they throw away; it’s really not as dodgy a habit
as it sounds!) Collecting other peoples’ junk,
growing your own food, eating roadkill, knowing what
you can collect and cook from the woods – in an
age of wall-to-wall consumerism, these are revolutionary
Which may just make Fergus Drennan our Karl Marx.
As he stops the car and leads me to our first destination,
he’s still talking about what drives him.
‘We’re so cut off, aren’t we?’,
he says, as he leads me through a five-barred gate and
up a hill at the edge of a wood. ‘Very few people
understand the land, or even know what grows in their
gardens or on the bit of wasteland behind their back
fence. But once you do know, you start to understand
the place you live in, and feel part of it; really part
of it. It’s about culture, as much as anything.
People complain all the time about how old traditions
dying out – but where are the new ones coming
from? Those old traditions came directly from the land,
and from people’s attachment to it. Because we
don’t know where we are, or what happens in our
landscape, we can’t create new ones.’
Up the hill, through another gate, along a path through
the woods and we find ourselves in an overgrown field.
A collapsed shed and a clutch of overrun apple trees
suggest that this might be an abandoned allotment. Whatever
it is, sandwiched between the M2 motorway and the back
gardens of a housing estate it is overlooked and apparently
unloved. Except by Fergus, who is already walking purposefully
through the long grass, with his eyes down. He’s
looking for mushrooms, and I join him. Within minutes
he’s filled a wicker basket with Morel and St
George’s mushrooms, and is rummaging about in
the hedgerow, cutting the tops off of nettles and seeking
out wild garlic and hogweed. To Fergus, this place is
a giant larder.
‘At this time of year’, he says, as he
ferrets around in the undergrowth, ‘almost everything
you can see can be eaten. Chickweed, nettles, garlic
mustard, hogweed, Lords and Ladies, wild garlic –
you name it. But you need to be careful to harvest it
with respect and understanding. Last year someone wrote
an article about me in the press, and they mentioned
that I had gathered eighty kilos of wild chestnuts in
one session. Someone wrote to me and said ‘what
about the poor squirrels?!’ And I said, what you’ve
got to realise is that what I took was just about a
third of the crop of just one tree! The abundance out
here is amazing, if you know what to look for.’
He’s not wrong there. The basket is filled within
twenty minutes, and we head off back down the path.
On the way back to Fergus’s house we stop in a
lane by a farm owned by a friend of his. Fergus grabs
a knife from the car boot and balances precariously
on the top wire of a fence, leaning on the bark of a
tree. Above him, growing from the tree, is vast yellow
‘Chicken of the woods!’ says Fergus. ‘It
He’s not wrong there either. Back at his place,
he cooks up the morning’s crop. Lunch is nettle
soup with a garnish of wild garlic and cream, followed
by wild mushroom omelette – in which the Chicken
of the Woods more than lives up to its name –
and a salad of sorrel, hairy bittercress and chickweed.
Everything tastes good – but more interestingly,
everything tastes different to anything you can get
in the shops, however expensive or rare. It’s
a curious and exciting experience.
And it’s not over yet: Fergus has a plan for
the rest of the day as well. We’re heading east,
to the coast, where we are to spend the evening on ancient
Reculver beach, preparing ourselves a feast. Before
we’ve even got near the shore Fergus has spotted
a line of Alexanders, the cow parsley-like plant that
grows by roadsides all across Britain – and yanked
a handful of them out to give me some roots to take
home. Boil them up and add butter and lemon, he says,
and they make an intriguing accompaniment to any meal.
Down on the shingly beach it’s a blazing sunny
day. Families are sunbathing and eating ice creams,
and kids are building sandcastles. I wouldn’t
mind an ice cream, but it seems we’re here on
business. Fergus hands me a sack and directs me towards
the lines of dark green leaves growing at the foot of
the low chalk cliffs. ‘Sea beet’, he says.
‘Like spinach, but better’. He gets picking,
and so do I.
That’s the vegetables sorted anyway; next step,
the soup. Fergus has timed our visit to coincide with
low tide, so that we can pick seaweed. There are three
types growing here, he tells me – all at different
levels, and all edible: laver, bladderwrack and dulse.
We pick them all. On the way back up to the shoreline,
Fergus spots some sea purslane, and shoves that in his
bag too. Everything, it seems, is coming together.
And later that day, it does. It’s gone seven
on Reculver beach, and the crowds have gone home. Sand
martens buzz around our heads, dipping in and out of
holes in the cliffs, as Fergus monitors two driftwood
fires at the top of the beach. He produces a couple
of sea bass (bought, if not caught, locally) and takes
them down to the shore to scale. Then he wraps them
in seaweed and places them on the hot embers, which
are covered with shingle to make an oven.
Within an hour, the fish are done to a tee. To accompany
them we have sea beet, fried with butter and salt, and
a delicious dulse soup which beats anything a Japanese
miso snob could throw at you in a London restaurant.
We sit below the cliffs and eat, watching the sun set
over the sea. I could take to this, I tell Fergus. He
‘I can’t recommend it enough’, he
It turns out that I meant it. When I got back home
I followed Fergus’ recipe for nettle soup, and
it was fabulous, if I do say so myself. My nettle beer
wasn’t quite so successful, but next year I plan
to hone the recipe. I gathered myself bunches of ash
seeds from the local woods, and made myself some ash
key pickle from a 17 th century recipe. It still sits
in my cupboard, awaiting someone brave enough to try
it. On my kitchen worktop is a pan of elderflower champagne,
waiting to be bottled.
I have a feeling that this won’t be the end
of it. Foraging, it seems, is already in my bloodstream.
Fergus Drennan’s website is at http://wildmanwildfood.com