Fergus Drennan is a man who literally feeds off the land. Nothing is too odd or disgusting for him, from nettles to roadkill. He’s had his share of interesting experiences and speaks knowledgeably about badger dishes: There’s no rhyme or reason to badger. Sometimes it tastes really gamey and uriney, even if it’s fresh. It can be excellent though.
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.
You might be shocked or disgusted but you can’t help but be impressed, too. 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’s even offered to take David Milliband foraging for a day – thought it seems the Environment Secretary hasn’t taken him up on the offer yet.
He is what’s called a professional forager – one of a handful of people in Britain who can literally make themselves a living from the land.
He’s usually a vegetarian, but does eat roadkill: 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 10 million birds 20,000 foxes and 50,000 badgers are killed on the roads every year. I calculate that that if you assume that 2,000,000 of these birds will be edible, and that a badger would feed six people, that’s about 2,090,000 meals going to waste.
And what sets a young man on the road to foraging as a career?
Fergus interest began as a child, when he would wander the countryside with a copy of naturalist Richard Mabey’s classic book Food For Free, sampling nature’s wares. The best way to learn was to pick something, eat a little bit and see what happened
At University Fergus lived in a tent for three years, and ate what he found in the fields. An office job never appealed and so, together with a business partner, he set up an experimental company that sold his wild foods at farmer’s markets and began providing them to restaurants.
Now Fergus runs his own business, Wild Man Wild Food. He’s proving foraging isn’t some sort of ancient practice but, as organic food, farmers markets and local produce all explode in popularity all over the country, perhaps the next logical step. Wild food, it seems, is an idea whose time may have come.
But for Fergus it isn’t just about food, or trends.
So many of my friends are constantly criticising this country, 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.
He seems really passionate about understanding the landscape and the locality you live in.
We’re so cut off, aren’t we? he says. 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 are dying out – but where are the new ones coming from? These 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.
That includes harvesting with respect and keeping in mind you aren’t the only forager out there:
Last year somebody wrote an article about me in the press and they mentioned that I had gathered 80 kilos of wild chestnuts in one session. Someone wrote to me and said ‘what about the poor squirrels?’ And I replied saying, 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 out for.
Yellow bracket fungus Chicken of the woods!
Nettle soup with a garnish of wild garlic and cream
Wild mushroom omelette with Chicken of the Woods and salad sorrel, hairy bittercress and chickweed ‘on the side
Alexanders (cow parsley-like plant grows by roadsides all across Britain) – boil them up and add butter and lemon for a delicious garnish
Sea beet (grows at the beach, dark green leaves) Like spinach, but better
Seaweed, different types – laver, bladderwrack, and dulse wrap it around seabass and put on the fire
Dulse soup Fergus alternative to Japanese miso soup