Rustling Up the Roadkill
Foraging for wild food is an art whose time has come
Daily Telegraph, 24th June 2006
‘Before we do anything else’,
says Fergus, ‘Guess what this is made of.’
He reaches into a wicker basket and pulls out what looks
like a fruit tart.
I bite into it. It tastes of rhubarb.
‘Rhubarb?’ I say, suspecting correctly that
this would be far too obvious.
‘I knew you’d say that!’ he grins.
‘Everybody says that. It’s not rhubarb.
Have another guess.’
‘Wild rhubarb?’ I say, clutching at straws.
‘Nope’, says Fergus. ‘I’ll put
you out of your misery. It’s Japanese knotweed.’
‘Isn’t that a horrible invasive weed?’
I say, looking at my tart suspiciously.
‘Depends what you mean by weed,’ says Fergus.
Fergus Drennan is a professional forager. Take him to
a beach, a wood or a bit of waste ground and the chances
are he’ll be able to rustle up several square
meals from it. It’s a remarkable skill and today,
Fergus has promised to initiate me.
I couldn’t wish for a better guide. Fergus has
been foraging since he was a child. Now he runs his
own business, Wildman Wild Food, which sells his foraged
produce at farmers markets and to an increasing number
of restaurants. Wild food, it seems is an idea whose
time may have come.
As we drive to our first destination, Fergus explains
his passion to me.
‘We’re so cut off now’, he says as
we drive into the Kentish countryside. ‘Very few
people understand the land. But once you do know, you
start to understand the place you live in, and feel
part of it. So many of my friends are constantly criticising
this country… you know, “I’ve got
to get out, it’s all going to the dogs”,
etc. But for me, this is what I do – I feel such
a part of it through this that I could never leave.’
This, then, is a mission; and one Fergus doesn’t
shirk from. He will, it seems, eat pretty much anything.
He tells me how he once tricked a friend into eating
badger burgers and then segues into an enthusiastic
defence of one of his favourite pastimes: eating roadkill.
‘It’s been estimated that ten million birds,
twenty thousand foxes and fifty thousand badgers are
killed on the roads every year’, he says. ‘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 going to waste.
And you can do so much with it! I used badger intestines
once to make some chipolatas.’
Fortunately, badger intestines are not on the menu today.
Our first stop is a patch of green ‘wasteland’
between the M2 and a housing estate. It doesn’t
look promising to me, but Fergus plunges into the grass
and emerges with handfuls of Morel and St George mushrooms.
They smell gorgeously earthy. Then he’s in the
hedgerow, cutting the tops off of young nettles and
searching for wild garlic and hogweed. Where the rest
of us might see an unexceptional field, Fergus sees
a giant larder. ‘At this time of year’,
he says, ‘almost everything you can see can be
eaten. The abundance is amazing.’
Basket full, we make our way back to Fergus’s
place, where he turns what we’ve spent the last
hour gathering into lunch. He serves me nettle soup
with a garnish of wild garlic and cream, and follows
it up with a wild mushroom omelette and a salad of sorrel,
hairy bittercress and chickweed. It’s both delicious
and novel. Everything tastes subtly, or in some cases
strikingly, different from anything else I’ve
eaten in this country. This might explain why Jamie
Oliver, amongst others, comes to Fergus when he wants
intriguing ingredients for his London restaurant.
Lunch over, we head for the beach. It’s a blazing
day. Families are sunbathing and eating ice creams.
Fergus hands me a sack and directs me towards clumps
of dark green waxy leaves growing at the foot of the
chalk cliffs. ‘Sea beet’, he tells me. ‘Like
spinach, but better’. I get picking.
Twenty minutes later, our sacks full, Fergus leads me
to the shoreline. He’s timed our visit to coincide
with low tide, so that the seaweed is easy to disentangle
from the slippery rocks. There are three types growing
here: 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. I have
no idea what he plans to do with any of it.
Later, all becomes clear. It’s a still, summer
evening on Reculver beach. Sand martens buzz around
our heads as Fergus monitors two driftwood fires at
the foot of the orange cliffs. He scales a couple of
locally-caught sea bass, wraps them in seaweed and places
them on the hot embers, which are covered with shingle
to make an oven. On the second fire, one pan contains
sea beet, frying with butter and salt, and another contains
Within an hour they’re all cooked to perfection,
and we sit on the shingle eating them, under a setting
sun. I haven’t had a meal this good in ages, and
I’m filled with a desire to know more about what
grows under my nose, and how I can eat it. I tell Fergus,
and he grins at me.
‘That’s how I got started,’ he warns.
‘I’m warning you: once it gets you, it doesn’t
Fergus Drennan’s website can be found at www.wildmanwildfood.com