If you go down to the woods today . . . be prepared to find them heaving with proto-hunter-and-gatherer types, not to mention the occasional itinerant film crew, crashing though the undergrowth in search of nuts, fungi and Wordsworth’s “lurking berries, ripe and red”, or snuffling out edible plants, herbs, bark and roots, along with the occasional trapped rabbit, in a kind of gonzo rustic rite of passage. Free food has become the most precious commodity of all.
Although mushroom-picking has long been a serious weekend pursuit elsewhere in Europe, the occasional blackberry ramble has tended to be about as far as most of us go in our back-to-nature moments.
Unless food comes in sterile, vacuum-packed and brightly wrapped containers, we remain mistrustful eaters and for most of us the whole business of food production a big, black, scary mystery. So, although food for free is an attractive theory, for most people there has to be a catch. Such as poisoning yourself.
Derbyshire-based Dave Watson allays such fears with his obvious sense and experience. A forager since his teens, when he spent much of his time wandering around Britain in semi-wild places trying to live off the land, he now, nearly 30 years on, manages Woodland Survival Crafts, which runs courses in bushcraft and forest foraging for disadvantaged youths, families in search of an alternative holiday and executives indulging in some team-building.
As we take a walk on the wild side in some of his local woods, Watson says he feels the growth of interest in self-sufficiency has been partly to do with a need to get away from our over-regulated environment. And, no, he says, that doesn’t mean eating insects, unless you really want to.
Instead, from a mass of (to my untrained eye) undifferentiated green, Watson points to a clump of something with hairy, spear-shaped leaves that, according to him, make rather good fritters.
“Look around you – what do you see?” he says, taking in the woodland with a sweep of the arm.
“Trees, plants, water . . . ” I hazard.
“Yes, but I also see water, shelter, food and warmth. I see free food, herbal tea, rope, medicine and fire-lighters.”
I see a duck but, alas, no orange.
Clad in statutory bush-hat, khakis and beard, Watson also sports the forager’s most essential piece of kit: a decent knife. If there had been a Douglas fir handy, he explained, we could have had a deodorant, perfume and insect repellent in one handy branch – or, I suggested, the basic ingredient for a Douglas fir ice-cream a la Fat Duck. However, as we pass a convenient hazel tree, he grabs an unsuspecting twig and, before I can say Crocodile Dundee, he’s whittled some stylish barbecue pincers, a nib-shaped toothpick and enough rope to float the Titanic. The hazel also makes an excellent bow-drill with which to light the campfire.
Along with the adventure and self-discovery come some fantastic tastes and flavours. As naturalist and author Richard Mabey wrote 35 years ago in Food For Free , wild foods “bring a realisation of just to what extent the cultivation and mass production of food have muted our taste experiences”. Watson says that because the soil in ancient woodlands is usually undisturbed, so the plants contain nutrients and trace elements simply not found in other foods. Watson’s repertoire includes baked bulrush rhizomes (which taste rather like sweet potatoes) and fish with wild garlic and sweet cicely wrapped in burdock leaves. He’s also pretty pleased he can bake an egg without a pan: “Great for a bloke – no washing up!”
One thing Watson is not suggesting is that we all head for the hills and start picking. For one thing, there would be nothing left in an hour, and, he says, it is not true survival mentality to grab every edible plant in sight. He also suggests that, when gathering bilberries on a Derbyshire moor, you are advised not to walk around with a sharp intrument lest you are mistaken for a murder suspect. Watson is interested in more than the simple teaching of basic skills. For him, returning to nature in this way goes beyond encouraging more people to respect the countryside. It gives them an almost spiritual experience of being “out there”.
Dave Watson’s hawberry flatbread
As the last of the leaves fall from the trees it is increasingly difficult to find any wild foods worth gathering. One of the exceptions is the hawthorn.
This year the hawthorn bushes are as full and fat as they have ever been and, while the individual fruits have little in them apart from a large solid stone, they are still on the bushes in their thousands and it doesn’t take long to pick a small basketful. The fruit pulp is like soft apple but it binds together into a sticky mass that can be the basis of some good flatbreads.
A bowlful of hawberries
A bowlful of wholemeal flour
Give the berries a rinse to clean them up and drain off the water. With clean hands and some patience mash up the fruits, feel for the stones and pick them out one by one.
Once you have an orange-coloured mush, mix in an equal amount of wholemeal flour and work the mixture into a dough. Shape into small flatbreads and place them over the embers of the fire to cook slowly (or put them in an oven at gas 4/350Degrees F/180Degrees C for 20 minutes).
At home serve them with a nice piece of cheese, as the taste is quite bland. Out in the woods, however, a bland taste is surprisingly comforting.
Books worth picking
First published in 1972, Richard Mabey’s Food for Free (Collins, 12.99) reinvigorated interest in Britain’s wild food, with the history and folklore of – and recipes for – more than 200 native plants, fruits, herbs, fungi and shellfish. Still in print and still a classic, it spawned a whole new publishing sector. Here we list four other worthy occupants of the bushcrafter’s bookshelf.
Jacqui Wood, Prehistoric Cooking (NPI, 15.99) From clay-baked hedgehogs to nettle pudding, a recipe book that requires absolutely no modern tools.
Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman, Wild Food (Hodder & Stoughton, 20) The latest offering from bushcraft man himself is a well illustrated botanical guide to the edible countryside.
Roger Phillips, Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe Out of print but worth trawling the secondhand bookshops for, this is the definitive guide to what to pick – and what to leave well alone.
John Wiseman, SAS Survival Handbook (Collins, 12.99) Still the book for bushcraft enthusiasts everywhere.