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
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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