Foraging may be all the rage, but can you live for a whole year on squirrels, weeds mushrooms – and garden snails?

It's remarkable how the threat of poverty can focus the mind. It had all started with such promise. After years working in London as a writer, I decided to follow in my grandparents' agricultural footsteps and get back into farming. They had grown hops in Herefordshire, where my family has lived for more than 500 years. My wife, Emma, is a city girl so it took me a long time to persuade her, but eventually she agreed. We found a farmhouse with some land and moved with our children.

But the dream of country living soon turned into a nightmare. The land came with a tumbledown farmhouse originally built in the 1500s – a rare example of a Welsh longhouse built in England. It needed a lot of work, but we knew nothing of the building trade. It was a total disaster. We built up debt that would make the Royal Bank of Scotland weep and we were haemorrhaging money on the farm. I became completely emotionally and psychologically run-down and lost all direction. I needed a way out.

Inspiration struck on the farm. I saw the river, and the fat pigeons in the trees, and the hedges hung with lipstick-red hawthorn berries. I thought, how great to be able to eat only what nature provided – for free. I had a romantic notion that throwing myself at nature would be a healing force. So I decided to spend a year living off wild food as a modern-day hunter-gatherer. And I didn't want just to survive – I wanted to thrive.

I went into my "wild life" with blind ignorance. A typical English amateur, I could just about pick out a field mushroom and knew how to make bramble jelly. I was a hopeless fisherman but did know how to shoot and skin rabbits. I refused to do any research – I thought, if I sit down and work out how much carbohydrate I need each day I'll be so overwhelmed by worry I would never do it.

I spent a lot of my time in the kitchen, honing new recipes. There were some great successes, including my herby squirrel burgers. I shot the squirrels, skinned them (which is like a particularly hard round of tug-o-war) and minced them with chopped hedge garlic, wild thyme and wild chervil. They were delicious, as was my pigeon and burdock salad.

Of course, there were as many disasters as there were triumphs. This was a story of food heaven and food hell. Heaven was the feeling of being outside with my dog and my gun in one of the most beautiful parts of England, with a sense of freedom I hadn't felt since childhood. Hell was almost removing myself from the gene pool by eating poisonous mushrooms. I was out picking chanterelles and must have picked up something else, though I'm not sure what. I woke up at about two o'clock in the morning, feeling as if somebody was applying a defibrillator to my chest. My heart was beating out of its cage and I was unable to move for about five hours. I wasn't thinking straight and decided I didn't want to wake anybody so just lay there until, eventually, my heart rate slowed. It took weeks before I was right again.

There were some disasters in the kitchen, too. There are some plants that are supposedly edible but that you would struggle to eat. Docks are an example. They're terrible – bitter and metallic. The worst time was August, when the spring greens are past their best, there are restrictions on what you can shoot and other predators are at their busiest so the rabbits have been taken. That's when I started eating snails. I'd had French snails but these were common-or-garden snails, which aren't quite the same.

The best thing about wild food is that you're eating superfoods without thinking about it. It's madness that we're eating berries from the Amazon when there are rosehips in our hedges. My thinking became much clearer because my mind wasn't clogged up with so much carbohydrate and the sugar rush of the Western diet. My hearing and eyesight improved and I could run faster. I normally suffer from seasonal affective disorder and always feel tragically low at the end of summer. But I realised that because I was propelled by the seasons as a hunter-gatherer I moved from day to day without worrying about the future. I also lost a lot of weight.

The children, Tristram and Freda, thought that it was frankly embarrassing that Dad had "gone hobo". My wife is a vegetarian and, like my children, refused to have anything to do with my crazy diet. Her attitude to the kitchen also changed dramatically. I always thought it had been "our" kitchen but it suddenly became hers when she banished me because I was constantly covered in blood and guts from my hunting expeditions. Pulling out the innards of a small animals produces unbelievable quantities of gore.

The best day of my year came about four months in, when I suddenly realised I had become part of the landscape rather than looking over it. I could feel a connection to every animal and plant around me and it was then that my hearing and eyesight suddenly felt more acute. I remember seeing a buzzard and, instead of looking at it like a bird watcher, I saw a rival. I had developed a competitive relationship with other predators.

To celebrate the end of my year of wild food, I organised a special meal for family and friends. I cooked wild mushroom soup, wild duck with blackberry sauce or trout stuffed with aniseed and garlic mushroom stuffing, served with roast silverweed chips and steamed sorrel and mashed burdock. Then blackberry kissel, a kind of Russian jelly. We washed it down with a choice of wines I had made – sloe, dandelion or blackberry. It went down very well. I knew I must have been doing something right because suddenly the children were asking if they could have some.

The Wild Life by John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday, £16.99).

Interview by Rosanna Macpherson

Nature's larder: Foraged favourites

Burdock

The roots, thinly sliced, can be boiled as a vegetable dish. Or you can add dandelion leaves, water and honey and brew your own dandelion and burdock beer. Delicious.

Pignut

In the wild larder of Britain the pignut, which has a taste somewhere between coconut and parsnip, is a sweet treat. They are the roots of the pignut plant and can grow as big as golf balls. Delicious roasted.

Snails

The ultimate in slow food, but they take a lot of preparation. I collect them and purge them for a week by giving them a diet of grass before boiling them. These are not for everyone, and many people would be turned off by their gristly consistency but I compare them to liver.

Hairy bittercress

This unobtrusive "weed" is a member of the brassica family. It has leaves that are peppery-hot and makes an excellent ingredient in any wild spring salad.

Have you managed to fix up a feast using ingredients from the wild? Should more of us take to the outdoors to forage for our food? Write to us at yourstory@independent.co.uk

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: Front of House Receptionist / Receptionist

    £21K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Front of House Receptionist to provide th...

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders