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Wild Man, Wild Food

Eating wild food, understanding the landscape - it's all connected

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 that shocked.’

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 says.

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’ any more.

‘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 it.

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 acts.

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 bracket fungus.

‘Chicken of the woods!’ says Fergus. ‘It tastes great!’

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 smiles.

‘I can’t recommend it enough’, he says.

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