"If nobody dies, I'll run it again next year," said Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall, Channel 4's "Cook on the Wild Side", three days into his five-day course on foraging and cooking wild food, as we smoked on a bridge overlooking the Findhorn.
Nobody died and nobody threw up; nobody even hallucinated. Nobody slipped silently to the floor in a swoon, as bloody corpse after bloody corpse was laid upon the table. So book for next year while places last.
I came across the little item nestling at the bottom of the page of a magazine. "Highland Wild Food Cookery holidays with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Week-long package at Drynachan Lodge, Cawdor Estate, near Inverness. Includes cookery course: Woodland and Sea-Shore foraging."
I lodged with Hugh's parents for a few months when I was 18, in the days before he took to the wild in such a big way. I hadn't seen him since, nor had I seen any of his television programmes, but I knew he'd become vaguely famous. For weeks his face - little round glasses, shaggy hair and all - dominated the billboard on the Shepherd's Bush roundabout next to my flat. I had never spent time with a real hunter-gatherer, and I was curious to see how he'd turned out. Many Etonians graduate from Oxford to the River Cafe, but most end up sitting at a table, not working in the kitchen as Hugh did.
The week could make for an interesting experience. So I made a few enquiries then booked.
Drynachan Lodge belongs to the Thane of Cawdor, and long post-dates Macbeth. A late 19th-century killing centre, it is designed to pack in as many tweedy chaps as possible, in functional comfort, for maximum death delivery per day. Perched on the Findhorn, one of the best Salmon rivers in Britain, in a cleft in the vast Cawdor moor, this is as beautiful a place as you could hope to find. At least, Brian Ferry must think so; he took his family there the next week. One of the guests discovered Baron de Rothschild's name tag on his door, and if a staff-guest ratio of 2:1 is less than the Rothschilds are used to, it still felt pretty ritzy to me.
The raw ingredients
It was with slight trepidation that I walked through the door to the tartan-clad walls of Drynachan's drawing room.
I arrived very late on the first night, hungry, tired, and minus my luggage. Hugh gave me a glass of whisky, some chilled herb soup and a smoked-haddock souffle, and I sat back to get to know my fellow foragers.
The chemistry between a group of people, all strangers, keeping close company for a period of days, is much like cooking. Some personalities gel, some don't. There may be tensions bubbling under.
Here was Jill Atkinson, 33, from Carlisle, one of the youngest on the course and the product development manager who invented Marks & Spencer's Tomato, Mozarella and Basil Tart. "I worked on the smoked haddock quiche for seven months," she sighed.
Here were Craig and Mary Love, retired, from Shropshire, keen picklers who loved to cook and eat. "I read Elizabeth David from cover to cover when it came out," said Mary. "It changed everything."
Here, too, were Ted and Jean Fudge from London, who eat only organic food and set me drooling with their descriptions of holidays spent driving round the great restaurants of France.
Lemmie - Elaine Lemm - ran a cookery schools in Tuscany and had come, in the nicest way, to spy out the local opposition.
Jenna Bingham, a local property developer, had her own knife collection and personalised number plates and said she hated journalists because Jonathan Aitken was a friend.
Annie Andrews, from Staffordshire, a retired nurse and a grandmother, said she grew vegetables in her allotment, worked part-time in a health food shop, and had been on many cookery courses. "I've always foraged for food," she smiled. "We used to eat wild strawberries on the way to school."
We had all come because we had seen the advertisement and were fascinated by food. Where else could "What's your favourite pudding?" be standard small talk? Jill had taken a professional stand: "This was the only food holiday I could go on where I knew there would be nothing I could take back for work," she said firmly. "People won't buy nettle risotto at M&S."
I had come for two reasons besides idle curiosity. First, I am very slightly obsessed - until I met Hugh I thought I was deeply obsessed, but I bow to his genuine obsession - with how divorced we are from the means of our food production. Children seem to think meat comes in a plastic wrapper from Sainsbury's. That's why Babe was so successful in turning so many into vegetarians. "Shock, horror, Mummy, you mean this sausage used to be a little, oinky-woinky piggie-wiggie?"
I don't blame children for giving up the meat you generally buy in this country: so much of it is tasteless, water-bloated steroids. Most adults eat meat only in the ever-diminishing hope that somehow it will again start to taste as it used to.
The second reason? I love cooking and eating, and to be paid by The Independent to do so was a rare treat. Thank God, though, that this wasn't a survival course. I have a cousin who spent his adolescence wandering around in a furry hat, with a gun, and a pack of dogs at his heels, muttering "nature will provide", but if it didn't, Mummy's freezer would. Hugh's philosophy seemed the same: gather fresh food from the land, but cook it deliciously with other ingredients not necessarily indigenous to Inverness. We weren't offered a single worm all week.
Bouncy, bossy, like a very large dog, in some ways Hugh was the perfect person to run a group holiday. He was obviously used to being a ringleader in his normal life; despite the glasses he would have been Ralph not Piggy in Lord of the Flies. Fried rook breast, served fairly pink, on a salad of hedge garlic and dandelion, dressed with the juices of the pan deglazed with elderberry wine, is something you need a lot of self-confidence to serve to Lancashire farmers.
He lacked the patience the intelligent and popular often have, however: fools were not suffered gladly,and in a motley group of nine people there would inevitably be some who were guilty of folly. Thus the cutting remarks came as fast as a chef can chop chives: very funny if they weren't aimed at you; horrid if they were.
Hugh's TV career took off on offal. "I love it," he said as he mustered his troops for an afternoon's mushroom-picking in the silver birch woods beyond the river. "I made a 10-minute programme on why we should all eat more of it. Spleens are delicious."
His interest in wild food, however, was developed a long time before, when he would gather snails and pick mushrooms while his father (an extra inThe Guns of Navarone) played golf.
Like many of his kind, Hugh could even now be commuting to a merchant bank, but for a fruitless salmon-fishing holiday in his early twenties. "Nobody was catching any fish, but there were lots of chanterelles and ceps, so mushrooming took over. There are about 3,000 types of mushroom in Britain, of which only 20 are harmful and 100 are delicious."
His interest in wild food grew and grew from there. He had us up to our knees in the Moray Firth, squidging cockles in our toes, and gathering samphire from the sandy banks where the trees met the sea. It was like being on holiday in an EE Nesbit with Hugh as an anarchic version of the Edwardian patriarch.
"All our food is descended from something in the wild, so I got together with somebody who knows about that," he said as he barbecued pigeon breasts by a bothy on the moor. "I never wanted to do a survival programme. It's more a counterweight to the slightly specious gourmandisation of supermarket food."
This, after all, is a man whose cookery book contains instructions on how to prepare road-kill. To my disappointment, we never ate road-kill. What better way could you combine the destructive power of modern technology with hunter-gathering.
We rose at 9am to an enormous breakfast, cooked by Anna, who had been trained by Mosimann at 190 Queensgate. Meanwhile, the Cawdor gamekeeper would arrive with some bloody corpse. From 10am till lunch we skinned and gutted and cooked - game terrine, Arbroath smokie tart, gravad lax, jugged hare, roe deer. I invented a dish called Haddock brulee - much nicer than it sounds. After a vast lunch, with Anna filling in the gaps left by our cooking, we set off to forage for sorrel, for nettles, for cockles, for mussels, for mushrooms, covering a different terrain each day. We went swimming in the river, picnicked in the hills. A huge tea - chocolate cake cooked by Anna, and not a foraged ingredient in sight - was followed by more cooking. We could fish if we wanted to, or could go stalking. I attempted to demonstrate my theory that people should take responsibility for what they eat by killing a deer, but sadly the deer were rutting and in no mood to stand still to be shot. Dinner was later each day, followed by hours of whisky-drinking.
We did well...
"Every day we were cooking to a climax of a delicious meal," said Hugh on the last night of the course as, exhausted from entertaining, he drank chanterelle vodka. "We've found everything. We haven't had a single fuck- up with the food. It's on a sporting estate, so you get a constant supply of fantastic wild meat. We haven't even been eating game; essentially we've been eating vermin - pigeons, hares, roe deer. And it's next to the coast. We've got everything. People keep saying there were problems but the only rebellion was over the midge problem when we picked nettles."
A few complaints came out of the course. Too many journalists, said Jenna. Too many midges, said others, too much washing-up, and could we have a clothing list next time?I was sad to have missed out on Hugh's woodlouse- and-morel fritters, and wished we had had more training on how to kill our food.
Second helpings, anyone?
Still, almost everyone agreed they had had a wonderful time and most said they would like to come again. "I don't want to sound all forelock- tugging and servile, but we were so lucky to be in such a beautiful place," said Annie. "It takes you back to basics," said Jill. "I don't normally buy meat, but I felt fine about eating rabbits, pigeon and deer. I'll be much more competent and brave about foraging."
For myself, the course had changed my attitude to the countryside. I started to look at it as one huge larder, and bored family and friends with my new-found lore. Waiting until a 10-strong shooting party of merchant bankers came to dinner, all demanding roast beef with Yorkshire pudding please, I snapped on my Marigolds and cooked nettle risotto, adapting Hugh's recipe to utilise what we had to hand. To their amazement, they loved it and all had second helpings. The Philistines surrendered; the course had paid off
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's guide to road-kill
A surprising number of road-kill animals, particularly pheasants and rabbits, are in a decent state. Making good use of them should be seen as an act not of desperation but of sound ecological and economical principle. The fact it that is there at all is a promising start: foxes, crows and other scavengers will usually make off with a carcass within a few days of its death.
1) Look very closely to see if anything moves. A maggot-infested beast or bird may appeal to some roadkill enthusiasts but not this one.
2) Pull firmly at a leg or wing and turn the body over to check if it is intact and whole. Lift it up and feel the weight. It should be as you expect, not light through dehydration. Check all sides and feel for decent meat.
3) If all is good so far, risk a sniff. A hint of gaminess is nothing to worry about.
4) If it smells fine, then it almost certainly is fine.
5) Note also some telltale signs of a very fresh kill: loose feathers still blowing about the road; wet blood on the animal or on the Tarmac; a warm carcass in cool weather: rigor mortis (onset is usually after 4- 6 hours and will last about 24 hours).
Nettle Risotto - adapted from Hugh's Risotto of Garden Weeds and Herbs.
A third of a plastic bag of young nettle tops
A bunch of parsley
1 pint of boiling water
2 oz butter
8 oz arborio rice
1 chicken stock cube
1 wine glass white wine
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Blanch the nettles in the boiling water and drain, reserving cooking liquid. Sweat the shallots in the butter in a heavy saucepan with a tight- fitting lid. Add the rice and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring fairly continuously. Crumble the stock cube into the nettle water. Add the nettle stock to the rice. Bring to the boil, clamp on the lid and turn off the heat. Leave for half an hour. When you come back, the risotto will be nearly done. Turn the heat back on and add the wine and any more liquid if necessary. Stir in the chopped nettles and herbs and serve warm. Parmesan is not necessary.
For further information, contact Cawdor Estate office on 01667 404 666 The great outdoors: roe stalking on the estate (above); preparing barbecued kebabs and venison (top)
Making a meal of it: Cawdor Estate's gamekeeper, Roddy (right), demonstrates how to skin and butcher roe deer. Charlotte (far right) gets into action with a hare
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