Is it possible to live on wild food alone………………?
Day one (1st July):Bob Geldof’s bottom
Day one and I’m already thinking that a whole month living on foraged food is going to seem like a lifetime. Today has been great fun but quite daunting in the sense that it’s all been so incredibly time consuming. That wouldn’t be a problem in itself as it was time consumed most pleasurably. Unfortunately, for the next two weeks, I have to work for seven hours a day at my computer – at least if I want to save my book deal – which I do. It’s a real bind, which means that nine hour foraging days like today will be impossible. I knew this, of course, before starting, yet before you start to think I’m feathering my bed with pre-emptive excuses for subsequent failure, let me tell you why I’m living and eating this way in spite of knowing I’d be so busy. The simple fact is that so many people have said something like the following to me: “It’s all very well talking about abandoning the supermarkets and living on organic veg and foraged foods, but most people simply don’t have the time. It’s just not practical.” There is much truth in this. So, rather than argue the point, I’m going to subject myself to the potential hardship of finding out just how difficult and impractical it might or might not be.
For the last three months I’ve been eating very badly. I hurt my back after falling in the woods and have been taking lots of painkillers – more than the recommended dose. As a consequence I’ve felt tired all the time and have tried to compensate by drinking far too much coffee. Unable to forage as much as usual, I’ve been using up my supplies of both nettle and seaweed soup. But I’ve also been on the comfort stuff –chocolate of course, but also lots of marmalade on toast and pasta with rich sauces and lots of cheese. In other words, I’ve not been the super health forager that everybody supposes I am. That, however, is wonderful as preparation for this challenge. It means that I have become like so many others who work too hard in shitty jobs (any job that requires you to sit in front of the computer for seven hours a day is shitty, no matter what any body else says) and eat crap! But, enough of this; lets talk about today.
I could just eat a bowl of soup a day for a month and survive quite adequately. Nevertheless, that wouldn’t really be rising to the wild food challenge. No, the real challenge lies in attempting to eat relatively normally in terms of a varied breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. That takes preparation and I launched into this today without any whatsoever. To that end, today has been about sourcing ingredients that can be prepared as the bases for meals – prepared as flour. Flour becomes noodles, gnocchi, pancakes, biscuits, dumplings….The alternative would be not much different than a daily bowl of soup. It would be a daily bowl of soup and a plate of wild greens. Suitable materials to make flour of some kind are hard to come by at this time of year. Acorns and chestnuts would be fantastic but it’s just too early for them. So today I gathered about 1 ½ kgs of Arum maculatum (Lords and Ladies/Cuckoo Pint) tubers, 1 kg of burdock root and a kg of tree mallow seedpods. I’ll be experimenting with these so that in a few days I’ll be able to have noodles. If you are reading this, though, please bear in mind that Arum tubers are poisonous unless prepared in very specific ways. Also, today, I gathered a handful of wild cherries, a bag of lime blossom, a bag of chamomile flowers, a kg-ish of marsh Samphire, a big handful of seabeet, a small handful of sea purslane, a fist-sized giant puffball, 5 really lovely chanterelles, some unripe elderberries and 28 litres of spring water.
For breakfast I had steamed Seabeet with elderberries and roasted tree mallow seeds– very strange. For the rest of the day I grazed on wild rocket, hedge mustard and wild cherries whilst I was out getting the other things. In the early afternoon I drank a cup of chamomile tea and, early evening, a cup of linden (lime) tea. Dinner consisted in marsh Samphire cooked in staghorn sumac berry extract (as a lemon juice substitute) with ‘fried’ chanterelles and giant puffball. I enjoyed it immensely. It was almost orgasmic, actually, in the sense that as soon as I tasted the first chanterelle a delightful sensation spread from my cheeks across my whole face and around the back of my head! Eating this way certainly makes you appreciate your food immensely. Right I must go and prep the arum tubers…..
……..Oh, but wait, of course, I forgot to tell you about Bob Geldof’s bottom! When I was out gathering with my friend Sue this afternoon at the beautiful Faversham Creek, we had to walk over a very narrow bridge. In fact it’s so narrow that you can only walk single file. Crossing on the way back we stopped to throw stones in the mud (they make the most fantastic metor-like impacts!) and to watch a bird we couldn’t identify. We found out later that it was a Little Egret. Anyway, two men came to cross the bridge and it was a tight squeeze for them to get past us. Our bottoms rubbed together as they passed, and what a famous bottom, it was Bob Geldof’s bottom! “How was it for you?” I asked my friend Sue. “Soft and squidgy but firm”, came the reply. What a strange contradiction!
Day two (2nd July): tarpaulin and fat lips.
So the day started early – 6am, thinking about coffee, before I dosed off again only to wake five minutes later thinking about tongue twisters. I stumbled reluctantly out of bed, had a quick breakfast of pan roasted tree mallow seeds with steamed seabeet and fat hen prior to popping down the park to pick a purple-red pound of perfectly plump pucker-mouth wild cherries. They were pucking fantastic in fact and gave me a real lift. Who needs coffee? I then ground and winnowed the previous day’s tree mallow seeds (dried in a low oven over night) and boiled the burdock roots before working at the computer for 2 hours. Stopping for elevenses was good – steamed marsh Samphire with wild cherry juice followed by a cup of chamomile tea. I double concentrated the cherry juice by boiling it down whilst prepping the arum roots from the previous day. Then, another two hours at the computer before lunch at two. Lunch consisted in nettle, hastate orache, fat hen and sea purslane (a mixed kilo of which I picked yesterday but forgot to mention) soup followed by wild cherry sorbet. It was all absolutely delicious, although having double concentrated the cherry juice in an attempt to make it sweeter; the resulting sorbet was just a bit too intense. I appeased my pallet with a strong lime blossom tea. Actually, it was more to appease my head because by this point I had – as I did the day before, a pounding headache. It’s the coffee withdrawal that does it. Luckily the tea soon sorted it out. Then it was back to the computer for three hours.
By 6pm I was feeling a little anxious that I had nothing for dinner so it was off to the woods. Half an hour’s tramping about the woods getting bitten by mosquitoes resulted in only two tawny grisette mushrooms. I felt quite deflated. But, it was quite amazing how an awareness that nothing found would mean nothing eaten fine tuned my senses, because after this I searched with a manic intensity that surprised me – but it paid off, and five minutes later that fabulous torn golden shawl appeared: chanterelles. That was a wonderful moment, so unexpected. It really was exactly as the eighteenth century writer Dorothy Hartley describes: “You find them, suddenly, in the autumn woods, sometimes clustered so close that they look like a torn golden shawl dropped amongst the dead leaves and sticks”. I picked a pound of them – more than I’ve found at one time in years. Of course, it’s not the autumn but it seems that nobody has yet informed the weather. As I sat cleaning the mushrooms a light rain began to fall. Looking skyward, a most peculiar sensation started to arise in my lower lip. The rain started to come down hard and fast. I had no coat but it just so happened that I immediately came across a wonderful coat-sized piece of blue tarpaulin dumped in the woods – ‘like a torn blue opal shawl dropped amongst the dead leaves and sticks’ (what a sign of the times). By this point my lip had doubled in size! What had happened? A mosquito bite on the lip – who has ever heard of such a thing!? But of course, for mosquitoes lips must be like red rags (or even torn red shawls) to a bull, like a bee orchid to a bee, like a flame to a moth – the perfect fat blood-full feeding trough for them to stick their anxious needle mouths into.
I left the woods and drove to the sea, collecting bladder wrack, toothed wrack, dulse, sea lettuce, enteromorpha, oarweed, sugar kelp and carragheen. Back home, fat lip and all, I cooked up chanterelles with wilted greens – lime leaves, hop tops, hedge mustard and pellitory of the wall. It’s now 11.30 and I’m feeling ridiculously energetic. Time to blitz up those arum roots with some water, leave them to soak, drink a cup of lime tea and go to bed!
Day 3 (3rd July): The elder goddess bares her perfect breasts
Last night my mind became so active that I couldn’t sleep at all – not 20, 10, 3 or even half a wink. I even tried a triple strength linden (lime blossom) tea, but to no avail. Remembering a fantastic short story – Insomnia, by Virgilio Pinera, I double checked inside my bedside draw to make absolutely sure there wasn’t a gun there! There wasn’t
Because I’m rather stretched for time tonight I shall just put up the day’s menue – it wasn’t quite perfect but it was quite adequate.
Just like yesterday, I was stuck in front of this damned computer for seven hours. However, in the morning I managed to gather 2 kg of wild cherries – after falling down a hole; 1kg of cherry plums and a couple of handfuls of mallow tops. In the evening I gathered wild oats – in the pouring rain, and jelly ear fungus. The monotony of computer-based work was broken by my having to change the water my pulped arum tubers are in every few hours, and by the arrival of Gerald. He is a wonderful elder gentleman who carves fantastic things – including much of his own furniture, from drift wood gathered from the beach. I had given him what I considered to be a really good piece of elder wood, as he had promised to make a handle for my knife. Instead, he had used boxwood for the handle and carved the elder wood into a beautiful buxom goddess.
Day 4 (4th July): Winnowing thoughts and roadkill musings.
When, finally, I do get around to making the milk and roasting my wild seed coffee, I’m sure it will be wonderful. The weight of my advanced anticipation alone will, no doubt, project some future time travelling alchemical miracle to make it so. Of course, then, the experience won’t just be limited to that of taste. It will be, as much, an appreciative reflection upon the time, interest, effort, attention and crazy adventure of simply managing to produce it. No doubt it’s a cliché to state that we take so much for granted? Take meat for instance. Long lost, now, is the ritualised respect and seriousness associated with the capture, kill and preparation of animals for food. Factory farmed ‘value’ chickens fly off the soulless production like so much…well….dead meat. Its debased and mundane two-a-penny familiarity renders us blind to our lost spiritual connection and meaningful awareness of life/ death processes – the cycle of hunter and hunted, of decay and renewal, of the skilfully, even artfully, sought and found. I don’t consume much meat, only a little roadkill – occasionally. But when I do find it, I find both a tragic and beautiful story within the sorry carcass. The meat becomes very precious and is never taken for granted. Perhaps, in order to gain a fuller appreciation of things in general we have to rebel against the deadening comforts and ultraconveniences of the modern world. Actually, today I feel more alive than I have in quite a number of years. The ordinary has become extraordinary again………..
For the first time this week foraging has interfered with my social life, as I had to turn down a regular poker game. Still, never mind, I popped out for an hour to find dinner instead and returned straight home to cook a feast: Steamed wild greens –seabeet, fat hen, chickweed and sow thistle, served with pan-fried ground tree mallow seed, alexanders and seabeet root and, to finish it all off, fairy ring mushrooms and sea kale! What a mix!!
Day 5 (5thJuly) Sloooow food; insanely slow food!
Place a dessertspoonful of the creamed wild greens on top of each biscuit and garnish with the mushrooms. Serve 4-5 biscuits on a plate accompanied by a tumbling pile of mixed chanterelles and fairy ring mushrooms in the middle.
Burdock root flour
Tree Mallow flour
Talk about SLOW FOOD! Nevertheless, I found this to be really delicious.
Day 6 (6th July): Cafetiere smashing coffee!
Only two hours sleep last night – what is going on!? I should feel ghastly but don’t. Nevertheless, I did start to drift off half an hour before I had to get up so was more desperate than ever for a coffee!!!! But no fear, no headaches, no worries – coffee was on its way. I prepared the wild (OK – escaped) oat milk the other day, and so was full of enthusiasm and excitement at the thought that, with just a little more preparation, I’d soon be marrying it up in nuptial steaming ersatz and caffeine free bliss to a roastily dark brown exotic stranger!
A slight detour on the way to my first coffee ingredient really paid off with a gorgeous handful of parasol mushrooms. I had been checking the spot for the last week, thinking that with all this rain something was bound to come up soon. The night before last there had been absolutely no sign of them. They must have grown incredibly fast. Next stop ‘coffee bean’ gathering: cleavers seeds, hawthorn berries, green walnuts and alexanders seeds. I rushed back home, and in my manic enthusiasm to find the cafetiere managed to smash the damned thing – disaster! Nevermind, nothing was going to stop the coffee now. I took two handfuls of cleavers seeds, one of hawthorn berries, two black alexanders seeds and two green walnuts (chopped very finely) and roasted them all off. This took about thirty minutes in a hot oven. I ground the result, savoured the aroma, tipped the luscious powder into the smashed cafetiere, poured on boiling water and waited (impatiently) before pouring a cup. And how did it taste you may ask? Well, it could taste only one way and that way it did: bloody smashing! – so good in fact that I started roasting more walnuts immediately.
After working at the computer for hours I took a forage break to get some salad for lunch. And what a delicious lunch it was: Pellitory of the wall and Parasol mushroom tart with wild salad. I made the pastry case by combining burdock root, arum, oat and reedmace flour in equal proportions before mixing with a little sea and spring water. I left the tree mallow seed flour out this time – just to be on the safe side.
Worked at the computer again for interminable hours before…..wait a minute, I’m still at the blasted thing. Right I’m off to find dinner!
Day 7 (7th July): Burnt midnight oil; burnt coffee; burnt enthusiasm; burning sun – hurrahhh!
Worked till far too late last night before thrashing about in bed hopelessly till dawn. Now a lack of a decent night’s sleep has finally caught up with me! I have changed from energised to zombiefied. But at least I now know what the problem is. It is the fact that I’m forced to sit in front of the fracking computer all day and am not getting enough exercise. So, the question is: What is the point in writing a book if it destroys your quality of life? Answers on a postcard please. It’s the old restless leg thing that’s playing night time havoc – don’t get any exercise in the day time, and in the evening your legs get revenge by super-twitchily dreaming about running ten back to back flippin’ marathons! Of course, there is a solution: find the time to get more exercise. Find the time, ha; I always did fancy becoming a magician. Still, it must be done. I have decided then that rather than attempt to run, climb, dance or swim in my sleep I’ll do at least one of those things in reality. Tomorrow morning I shall give my legs what they want and do thirty lengths of the local pool. They will thank me, and I will sleep!!
Breakfast started as an initial disaster – seriously whole grain porridge that turned green and resembled exactly what I had discovered first thing in the morning: a crumpled sheet lying on the floor in the spare room was hiding a secretly wretched up stinking gift from the cat’s guts. I also stewed some cherry plums to eat with the porridge. However, I found this incredibly painful to eat due to a huge merging triple ulcer on my inner lower lip. When my lip had swollen to three times its normal size, after receiving a mosquito bite a few days ago, it had also become completely numb. In my stupid fascination at its size and feel or, indeed, lack of feeling, I had chewed on the fat monstrosity. The ulcer was my pay back. I stared morosely at my scrub-water-from-a-burnt-pan coffee cursing my lip, my sickly porridge, my lack of sleep and the fact that I had cremated the green walnuts that had supposed to become such a glorious coffee. Then something amazing happened: the sun appeared, hurrah, and the blues disappeared. I mixed the stewed cherry plums with the porridge. It tasted great. The red cherry plums masked the ghastly green; the horrific acid-attack ulcer burning red cherry plums had been mellowed by the porridge. All was right with the world again.
Worked at the computer for hours as usual before thinking about lunch. Fortunately I didn’t have to think a great deal because I had accumulated a respectable bowl of leftovers from the previous few days. I just needed to be creative. No problem! Actually, it was slightly more challenging than I had supposed. It’s incredible what we take for granted generally. It’s also incredible what we take for granted in terms of basic cooking essentials: seasonings, oils, a few eggs to bind this and that. On what, in essence, has become a completely vegan wild food month, such basic essentials have to be worked around. Salt – that’s easy, I just use seawater. But what about oil? I wanted to make potato cake style wild food leftovers cakes but these would require shallow frying. I managed to get around this by dusting them well with flour before putting them in the frying pan and then finishing them off in the oven. I couldn’t rely on leftovers for the salad. So while the cakes finished off in the oven I popped out to get lime leaves, fennel flowers, dittander flowers, ivy-leaved toadflax flowers and a crow garlic bulb. The resulting dish was the best I’ve eaten so far. The samphire I picked last week has held up really well in the fridge, and little nibbles of the raw bulb between mouthfuls of vegy cakes worked wonders. They were still moist inside and quite delicious given how many things were in them: chanterelles, fairy ring mushrooms, parasol mushrooms, burdock root, alexanders root and leaf, common orache, hastate orache, sea purslane, ox-eye daisies, hogweed flower shoots, bristly ox-tongue, seabeet, lords and ladies flour, burdock root flour, oat flour, tree mallow flour and seawater!!! The salad was pretty good as well. I didn’t dress it this time. You probably know that fennel flowers are as tasty as fennel; what you probably don’t know is just how incredibly horseradishly mustard-pungent those innocuous looking little dittander flowers are! Definitely no need for dressing.
Whilst out gathering the salad I also found some curly dock seeds that were mature enough for harvesting. These are for tomorrow’s new flour making experiment. Before beginning this wild food adventure I had planned to harvest loads of the seeds to make enough flour for the whole month. Unfortunately most of the seeds were still green. Oh well, needs must, as they say, and look what devilish flours I managed to come up with instead.
If anyone has any interesting recipe ideas that they think I should try I would be absolutely delighted to hear about them. It’s not going to be easy trying to come up with new dishes for a whole month without any help.
Day 8 (8th July): Howling cats and hard questions.
I must have scared my restless legs into restful and slumberous submission with my threats of imminent exercise because I slept a full six hours without the slightest twitch from them last night. Still, I didn’t want to face the consequences of calling their bluff so really did go swimming as threatened. Mind you, there are many other sleep snatching fiends prowling the early hours. I woke at 5am to the wailing air raid siren like battle cries of cats. My two, Elvis and Omar, were tactically position – hair on end, as two alien impostor feline fiends battled it out in the garden tree. In the end, the only important battle my two were interested in concerned who would be king of the leaching walnut tub castle for most of the day – a battle definitely won by Elvis; although Omar did hold out for a few minutes (right).
I’ve absolutely no time to forage for wild food or write this blog. The very fact that I am means that I’m now 4 days behind a particularly pressing book deadline for the 15th of this month. Lunch today, then, had to be a sling-it-on-the-plate yesterday’s leftovers job – it was delicious though. Tomorrow I’ll try to come up with something a bit more interesting and adventurous. Indeed, for me one of the most adventurous parts of this challenge involves not knowing what’s to come tomorrow. It reminds me of a cycle trip I took around Ireland about 12 years ago. I just had a bicycle and a sleeping bag, cycled 70 miles a day, and as the evening twilight fell I still had know idea were I would be sleeping that night. It’s the same sense of excitedly anxious intrepidation I feel now. Incidentally, that Ireland trip was the only other time I have tried to live solely on wild food. Unfortunately everything went pear or, rather, sandwich shaped, after my having discovered a wild cabbage growing on a shingle bank in the middle of a river. This was after two weeks, and I was so excited at having found something relatively normal to eat, that I was jumping and leaping about like a jester. A lady walking her dog came to enquire as to what the ‘trouble was’ and I explained the full story. Half an hour later, as I sat at the riverbank eating my sublime cabbage soup, she returned with a whole bag of goodies – sandwiches, biscuits, cake….! How could I tactfully refuse her kindness? No, I just wasn’t up to the task and was compelled to gorge!
Well, I’ve come quite a long way since then in terms of transforming foraged finds into something more than just insipid (sublimely so!) cabbage water. When I made both nettle and seaweed soup at the beginning of the week I didn’t add any salt, as I hadn’t got around to foraging any. Fortunately today I collected more sea water to concentrate and add. Not only that though, I combined both soups and garnished the resulting concoction with some shredded nasturtiums leaves, after finding some in an alleyway, as well as a teaspoon of dried dittander flowers seasoning. Much improved!
But, what of the hard questions I mentioned? This challenge throws up many. However, perhaps the most important ones concern issues of sustainability. These will not go undressed, and I will be considering them in my final blog or subsequent postscript.
Day 9 (9th July): Out of gluten? Get the gelet-in!
I had high hopes for the various flours that I’ve made: Arum maculatum, burdock root, wild oat, tree mallow seed, reedmace head and curly dock seed flour. They were to be transformed into biscuits, pastries, dumplings, pancakes, noodles, bread, cakes, chocolate and gold! Okay, may be not the last two. Nevertheless, with the first two I’ve already had some success. The ultimate goal though had been to make noodles or pasta. Believe me I’ve tried. Unfortunately, kneading flour and water together -with no matter how much bloody minded, stubborn and increasingly desperate wishful thinking, will not produce a suitably springy dough if there is no gluten or insufficient gluten present. This seems to be a sad fact, although I would dearly love to be informed otherwise. I had read somewhere that arum tubers were high in gluten, which is why I went to so much trouble leaching out all the toxins to make flour. Actually, it’s a fairly versatile flour but not versatile enough. It doesn’t appear to contain any gluten at all, and certainly won’t make noodles – at least as conventionally understood. However, all is not lost. This one disappointment together with a further rain soaked tragedy has led not to despondency but, rather, to unexpected opportunity. At the beginning of the week I lay out some carragheen seaweed to dry and bleach in the sun. The actual method of preparation involves repeated cycles of drying and washing. All had looked well until it started raining on the second drying day, and then on the third, the forth, fifth…..you get the idea. It was rotten, smelly and ruined. Never one to give up easily, I popped the putrid mass into a pan of boiling water. I forgot about it. It boiled over – in fact ALL over the stove top. I cursed! Then, without cleaning up the mess I decided to boil up some cherries for making wine. I left the cherries for 45 minutes to go and do some work. On returning a miracle had happened: behold the gelatine! Lots of it, forming curly fluttering wave crests in a bid to catch the rising thermals and fly to distant shores. Lunch was saved! Of course, I’m not claiming to have discovered the use of carragheen as a setting agent, after all, that’s the purpose I was drying it for in the first place. But what is interesting is that the further refined product (called caragheenan in the industry) is virtually ordorless and flavourless – even when produced from substandard stinking seaweed!
For lunch then, I tossed some ox-eye daisies in a small saucepan with a handful of sea purslane flowers, dittander pepper, sea salt, a tiny bit of water and a little of the residue that I’d strained and filtered from the boiled-over carragheen pan. After boiling for about two minutes I pressed it into a clingfilm lined ramakin and left it to cool. Next I chopped the parasol mushrooms finely and cooked them in a tiny bit of water with some finely chopped wild chervil. Once cooked, I broke in a few bits of my new vegy gelatine sheets. This same procedure was carried out on a pan of hastate orache leaves. Once cooled I was left with two items: cooked leaves and mushrooms that could be carefully shaped. I did so, wrapping a layer of cooked orache around mushroom balls before encasing the whole lot in blanched garlic mustard leaves. After reheating these parcels and the ox-eye daisy mould in the oven I served them with a wild salad: shepard’s purse, dandelion, chickweed, ground elder and ivy-leaved toadflax. This was totally opportunistic cooking at its best. Suffice to say I felt well chuffed – hence the over the top presentation!
Now then, perhaps all noodling opportunity is not lost? I wonder, is a cold noodle salad possible? How would this be done. My initial thought would be to mix some arum flour, dried mushroom powder and some vegy gel flakes with a little water; cook this for a few minutes and then roll out between pieces of clingfilm to cool. Once set these could be cut into noodles – well, maybe!
Day 10 (10th July): Them there hail and hearty plums, they’ll be a smokin’.
I picked cherry plums in such a powerfully freak hail storm last night that at one point I thought the pounding stones would knock me out. They didn’t. They could, though, have at least had the passing courtesy to dislodge a fair bounty of the sweet fruit, thereby saving me the trouble of reaching up to water-rivuleted soaking branches and, consequently, having torrents of the freezing waterproof disrespecting stuff cascade down my arms. They didn’t. At least after all that I should have stewed them well. I didn’t, they’re burnt, and I now have smoked cherry plums!. For the next few days then, smoked cherry plums and porridge will be my breakfast lot – after all, I just couldn’t possibly bring myself to throw them out after such an elemental adventure.
Well, after slaving away for hours at my all-work-no-play-makes-Jack-a-dull-boy book it was time for lunch again. I mixed up some of my unusual flour mix to make a couple of seabeet and parasol mushroom tarts. On the face of it, flour, seabeet, seasalt and water isn’t that promising in the absence of butter, lemon, cheese…and a big fat glass of red wine. Uninspired, I broke up the mushrooms into a saucepan and added a little water. Stooping to even further depths of noninspiration, I just chopped the seabeet and threw it on top. It wilted down and looked like…well, wilted spinach on soggy mushrooms. By this point the pastry cases I’d been baking blind were ready. They looked incredibly wholesome and, at that point, I thought they deserved just a little better. First then, I sliced and boiled a seabeet root that had been forgotten. Then I decided to save the stems I’d discarded. I boiled these in a little spring water diluted sea salt, strained them off and returned the liquid to the pan. In the meantime the seabeet and mushrooms were further cooked until all the liquid had evaporated. I took 2/3rds of the mixture, pureed it, mixed in the other third and put uncovered in a hot oven for 25 minutes –turning it over now and then. This process really helped to concentrate the flavours and I now had a tasty filling worthy of my wholesome pastry. On such a restricted diet I’m finding that it is just the little touches that make all the difference. Consequently, I returned the stems to their boiling pan and sprinkled on a little arum flour. After stirring and heating through the stems were left coated in a silky rich gravy. I had survived another lunchtime. As for dinner…..that’s a lifetime away.
Day 11 (11th July): Apples and blackberries save the day.
These blackberries were wonderfully juicy and sweet but weren’t early as you might be thinking – well, not compared to last year at any rate. On the 2nd of July last year I managed to easily pick enough blackberries to produce a gallon of pure juice. Generally speaking though they do seems to me ripening earlier year after year. Anyway, these blackberries were quite special as they postponed my smoky plum porridge until tomorrow. I was extremely fortunate to find wild apples to accompany them. The apples in question are quite extraordinary. They ripen earlier than any other apple I know – cultivated or wild, and seem to contain no balancing acidity whatsoever. When the juice is quadruple concentrated it tastes almost more like honey than apple syrup. There is only one magical tree of this mysteriously strangely shaped variety. For the last five years I’ve been meaning to get around to taking a few to the Brogdale Trust for identification – this will be year six no doubt!
I started this blog just as means to stop going insane with the pressures of book writing. Unfortunately it’s much more fun to do this than the later. Nevertheless, I have written up 88 very interesting (in the very best possible way of course) recipes – only 12 to go before the July 15th deadline. I must admit though, there is a real problem with writing recipes when you’re partaking of a month-long 100% wild food diet: fantasies of sweet liquors on tap, buckets of double cream and mountains of cheese tend to warp the mind and move the pen. I think the book will have to be renamed ‘The Ultimate Greedy Bastard’s Cream, Sugar, Chocolate, Liquor and Cheese Cook Book – with the tiniest tad of wild food”
Well, better get on with it. A mixed wild-things burger with seabeet kept me going for lunch; seaweed soup will keep me going for dinner; however, those seeds in the picture on the left will probably finish me off! They’re alexanders seeds stripped off the stem for future alchemical culinary magic (-al disasters).
Day 12 (12th July): Water from spout; noodles from nowt.
It’s not that I like to indulge in gratuitous extremes, but I’ve always felt that if, in the first place, you do manage to find the motivation to actually get up and do something, that initial wellspring of energy soon fades without renewed, repeated and constant stimulus. That’s how it is with me at any rate. So, in other words, if you’re going to do something you may as well do it well; do it properly; do it thoroughly; and do it completely – or, as that crazy man George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff puts it:
“If you go on a spree, then go the whole hog including the postage.”
Without the postage one stifles ones own success; with the postage, wrongly applied at least, one could die -too many arum tubers; 2kg consumed already? Anyway, water is the postage stamp of my foraging spree, without which my 100% wild food challenge would not feel complete. This morning then I collected another 26 litres of spring water, as I did on day one. I’m surprised my first batch didn’t run out sooner than this morning, as I’ve been using it for both cooking and drinking.
Last night I tried thistle flower buds for the first time – and enjoyed them immensely. The flavour is good, but it wasn’t simply the flavour that intrigued me; it was the whole wonderfully tactile processes of preparation that appealed in equal measure. As a consequence they were included on today’s lunchtime menu: Crazy noodles with chanterelles, seabeet sauce and thistle buds. Perhaps the most deeply satisfying aspect of that creation though wasn’t the thistles but, rather, the crazy noodles. At the very end of Day nine’s frustrating nought noodle day blog I speculated as follows:
” Now then, perhaps all noodling opportunity is not lost? I wonder, is a cold noodle salad possible? How would this be done. My initial thought would be to mix some arum flour, dried mushroom powder and some vegy gel flakes with a little water; cook this for a few minutes and then roll out between pieces of clingfilm to cool. Once set these could be cut into noodles – well, maybe!”
Well, this is almost exactly what I did, but with a couple of tweaking differences. I didn’t have any dried mushrooms so I cooked and liquidized two parasol mushrooms I found this morning. To this I added a little water and two handfuls of arum flour. Unfortunately there was a problem. I started to simmer this in a saucepan so as to cook the arum flour through and to create a thick cooked dough. The trouble was I couldn’t acquire the necessary thickness without it sticking in the pan. As a result I was forced to add more water than I wanted. I rolled it out between clingfilm sheets and it looked, on the face of it, just how I had envisioned. That is what was so satisfying. However, I knew that even if set it would still be too sticky. To get around this I removed the top covering of clingfilm and placed the noodle sheet in a low set oven for an hour. After that I re-covered it all and placed in the fridge until cold. Dusted with a little more flour it would have easily gone through my pasta machine’s cutting section quite happily. Nevertheless, I simply cut the noodles with a knife.
I thought I’d never say this – and perhaps I shouldn’t because in doing so I’ll probably put a terrible jinx on myself and never be able to find them again but, the truth is…..I think I’ve had enough of chanterelles! There, I said it.
Day 13 (13th July): I AM THE KING – WHO IS THE QUEEN?
“Pppssst….I am coming back to normal….soon I will be able to talk to you…..although to talk to you one has to be seriously twisted…I’m sure one way or another we will commune.”
And so began freaky Friday – Friday the 13th; the day, 10 years ago, after my driving instructor had threatened not to let me use his car for my driving test the next day “if I was going to bloody well drive like that!” I passed first time thanks to a superstitious last minute cancellation. Good luck for me, bad luck for everyone else. Thirteen is lucky. The day started with a wonderful text message – would she be my queen? Perhaps the day would end with 13 queens? In fact, last year I managed to collect the most fantastic succulent giant Chicken of The Woods fungus. It weighed exactly 13 kilos. The omens where all good so I leapt out of bed and was in the woods by 6.15. I felt lucky; today I would find porcini and Chicken of the Woods; today I would find magic.
One of my best porcini spots is also adjacent to a good area for Chicken of The Woods, and right near by is a pretty reliable chanterelle spot that I hadn’t visited this year until this morning. Were there any? No, of course not. None! Niente! Nada! Yes, last night’s words had reaped a speedy vengeance. No chanterelles; no Chicken of The Woods; no porcini; no nothing. I stomped here; I stomped there; I stomped everywhere. Twenty minutes later I finally stomped into a stand of butcher’s broom, scratched my arms, cursed loudly and looked around – I was totally and utterly lost! Everywhere looked the same. There were no outstanding features from which to make a mental note of where exactly I had arrived, that is, except for one large beech tree. Not that this was just any tree mind you. No, far from it; it was the king tree, standing tall, forlorn and alone. “I am the king -?- who is the queen”, was the burning question engraved on its truth seeking trunk. This was freaky Friday. A glimpse of red pulled at my peripheral vision. The queen running through the woods with a tray of jam tarts! No, another heavily berry laden stand of butcher’s broom. I considered my options and realized there was only one thing to be done. Big red berries were entreating me to accept only one possibility – turn them in to coffee; a peculiar coffee; a mad coffee; an Alice in wonderland coffee. I walked and gathered, walked and gathered, walked and gathered. Within half a mile I counted thirteen bushes – yes, THIRTEEN! But number 13 was no ordinary bush, no, far from it. In the thick of the woods and there lying at the base of the thorny leaves was a lovely white bandana! I filled this with berries and walked, and walked and walked trying to get out of the woods. Eventually a narrow mud track opened out onto a grassy meadow outlined by the distant blue of the sea – such a peaceful calming place. Only now did I realize how anxious I had become. But where was I? I walked the length of the meadow to a wooded corner that seemed to offer no possibility other than to re-enter the woods. In I went and walked….and walked…and walked. I stopped to have a wee, and looking down I saw a foot print in the mud. It looked vaguely familiar. I measured up my foot and pressed it down in the mud. Yes, same size, same print. Back to square one. There were the butcher’s broom stands. There was THE tree! And this time just behind the tree I saw a couple of mushrooms that I’d not noticed before looking faintly embarrassed by my stupidity: Blushers (Amanita rubescens)
I set out in what I considered to be the opposite direction and a brisk 10-minute walk soon brought me out into another meadow. What a beautiful meadow; a lost meadow; a meadow from times past – a meadow full of butterflies. I considered taking a photograph. It would be a hassle though. No doubt every time I got near one it would fly away. Besides, photographers are always snapping away at them so why bother? At that moment the words of my uncle came to mind – good words, inspiring words in fact. Earlier this year he had related an occasion on which some one had posed this very question.” Why do you want to bother photographing that butterfly; people are always doing it; it’s been done.” And what do you think his utterly wonderful no nonsense reply was? Simply this: “Yes, but not by me!” The decision was made then, and after much careful ducking, diving and general creeping about I was all set: tripod adjusted, obscuring grasses slowly, gently, quietly and oh so carefully brushed down and out of site. I pressed the auto focus. Damn, it was focussing on the background. So, carefully, slowly, gently I set it on manual, again delicately pushing aside the obscuring grass. The perfect meadow brown on the perfect fleabane flower is an image probably caught by countless others – but not by me. I pressed the button. Nothing. Pressed again. Nothing. “Replace battery pack” came the message on the viewing screen. Freaky Friday; Friday the thirteenth!
What of the day’s food though? Well, one great thing about popping down to the woods for a 15 minute forage and getting lost for three hours before breakfast, is that a subsequent breakfast of grainy oats and burnt cherry plums actually tastes pretty good. Thankfully that’s the last of them and tomorrow morning I’ll be gathering some fresh plums.
Actually, after the morning’s excitement I felt quite inspired. Lunch: sea purslane pancakes with wild flower, leaf and rosehip salad. The ingredients, as usual, were just a fortuitous mix of what I had or happened to find. The pancakes were made using arum flour, carragheen gelatine and a little sea salt. These were filled with a few chanterelles combined with seabeet leaf and chopped stems bound in a marsh samphire puree. The salad consisted of the following flowers: wood sorrel, fennel, dittander, common mallow and nasturtium; and the following leaves: garlic mustard, hedge mustard, alexanders, dandelion, chickweed and lime. This was given a tangy twist with the addition of Rosa rigosa hip pulp and skin. Dinner consisted simply in nettle soup followed by a big bowl of fresh blackberries. Delicious!
Well, the coffee is roasted and ready to go. But should I try it. Shall I be the king of experimentation……and death be my queen?
Day 14 (14th July): If you listen, they will teach you.
Just a couple of days ago -Thursday in fact, I was thinking about intuitive knowledge and innate awareness, and about how these may or may not facilitate the identification of both nourishing elements and toxic principles in plants. Indeed, I pursued this line of thinking almost, but not quite, to the point of purchasing a book on the subject. The one I had in mind was Stephen Buhner’s The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in Direct Perception of Nature. I thought about this again last night. More to the point, I tried to stop thinking just for a while, just for a minute, just for a second, as I contemplated drinking my Butcher’s Broom coffee. I drank a third of a cup. It was amazing. A leap of faith could only take me thus far. Not the seventy thousand fathoms deep of a full cup swigging Soren Kierkigaard, only the mere third of a cup depth of a doubting Fergus. But it was a start. I do have a problem, and that problem is that, more often than not, I’m far too rational: Rational in the face of the almost self evidently irrational, of the mysterious, and of those all too familiar magical synchronicities. Try as I might to ignore them they push harder against my resistance. So last night I went to bed questioning, wondering, doubting as to whether or not intuition and the radical interconnection with the world that its workings imply has a role to play in what I do. I fell asleep. I woke up. The doorbell rang, and the postman handed me a parcel that had come to me from California by way of Fresh Partners (my agent). Mysterious indeed! I tore it open and a card fell to the floor. There was the answer: ‘If you listen, they will teach you.”
I threw back my Butcher’s Broom coffee with relish. Delicious. Thank you Sunny!
Regarding food; today was the both the first time I’ve felt hungry and the first time I’ve almost come a cropper -not the exact phase I used! I went to collect Ramsons (wild garlic) seeds so as to vary my salads with a bit of sprouting. Unfortunately the seedpods had all burst and thrown their little black loads. True, the moist earth was covered in them, but it was too much of a fiddle to prize them from twigs, moss and small clumps of soil. However, the good news is that I did manage to gather about 10 ramsons leaves in good condition – that was a real surprise to me at this time of year. Wonderful, I would find giant puffballs and Chicken of The woods, fry them in great big delicious chunks and wrap the leaves around them. Alas, no. One soon learns doing this that realistically, until you have the ingredients in your basket, culinary plans are just a stomach tease. The ‘almost come a cropper’ part, then, was that by 3pm I had a few leaves and berries but nothing substantial for lunch. I was hungry. I raided the fridge and freezer – for what, I don’t know. And then there it was – brother pie, the twin of Day 10’s pie; an extra made and set-aside for which I had had no recollection until discovery.
Well, that would do very nicely followed by blackberry and red current sorbet. And it did!
Day 15 (15th July): Foraging the grub for a lightening sandwich.
Yesterday was extremely demanding. I ran a 12-hour foraging course. I enjoy such courses immensely. However, ensuring that all the participants are well informed, well fed and well looked after – particularly in terms of health and safety can leave one feeling a little weary the next day! Also, It’s been the first time I’ve ever run a course whilst being on such a restricted diet. Consequently, we all found ourselves in an unusual position, one certainly that required a considerable amount of trust on their part. After all, can you imagine going to a dinner party, the host cooking up lots of delicious food for you, and yet not eating it herself!? Imagine further, that half the ingredients used were strange and unusual foods for which you only had the host’s word that they were safe to eat. That was my foraging parties predicament. However, they did eat well and tried everything, and I believe they enjoyed it all immensely.
So what grub did we forage exactly? Well, here’s a somewhat surprising clue as derived from an article discussing the vegan contention that sufficient dietary intake of vitamin B12 can be acquired through plant sources alone. Writing in The Vegan, Stephen Walsh explains:
“The confusion in this area arises from a conceptual error. Many raw food or natural hygiene advocates believe that our evolutionary diet and that of our great ape relatives did not include an external source of B12 and then conclude that humans shouldn’t need such a source. In fact, all the other great apes – even the gorillas – consume insects incidentally along with their normal diet of fruits, shoots, leaves and nuts. Chimpanzees show particular enthusiasm for collecting and eating termites, which have high measured levels of B12. After capture, the blood B12 levels of most primates drops rapidly when they are fed on a hygienically grown and prepared plant-based diet. It is therefore not surprising that humans also need an external source of B12”
I did a little background research into this and other related matters before embarking on my current diet. As a consequence, I have been turning a blind eye to the odd insect or two…or three…or four……that maybe harbouring within my gatherings. Indeed, pursuing this idea, when one of my foragers discovered what looked like a pristine crop of cluster mushrooms (Agaricus pseudovillaticus) I was the only taker in the dinner stakes. And, in fact, in normal circumstances I too would have rejected them as being too maggot ridden. But, as they say, needs must when the devil drives. I ate them (cooked in a shingle oven) and was fine. Of course, maggot-ridden food is in a state of decomposition with all the dangers that that implies for consumption. Such decisions as to edibility have to be made on the basis of experience and limited to the individual case – or “nut case”, as you might be thinking! Of course we foraged plenty of other plant-based grub as part of our lightening sandwich. The only thing that is most unusual about that particular sandwich is that we and are various foraging activities were the filling! The course started at 9am. At 8.55am it was raining quite heavily with regular lightening flashes brightening up the sky. From 9am and for the next 12 hours it was a glorious warm summers day. At 9.15 pm as I dropped my foragers off in Canterbury loud rumbles of thunder could be heard. We stood in the Goods Shed farmers market car park gazing excitedly skywards as the evening sky lit up, cracking and crackling with ferocious lightening and terrible thunder. Ten minutes later it was pouring with rain. We were the sandwich – a lightening sandwich!
Day 16 (16th July): Magnificently magnified mycological moth wings encounter the seriously suspect slime of the stupendously spiky spear thistle.
The result of this fortunately short-lived encounter was a marriage neither made in heaven nor in hell but rather, in the realms of diabolical culinary insanity. Had you told me three weeks ago that I would be pureeing spear thistles to make an accompanying sauce for Cuckoo Pint based unidentified mushroom pancakes, I would have thought….- well, actually, I wouldn’t have thought anything whatsoever; my legs would have been acting on behalf of all thought as they propelled me at breakneck speed as far from your wickedly sounding curses as possible! Fear has that power to make us run and keep running. Some of us never stop. But in fear there are lessons to be leant that, if embraced, can lead not to fright but to the fun and excitement of adventure. I suppose that inherent to the nature of adventure is the fact that you don’t always know where that adventure’s going to take you; it is unplanned, spontaneous, chaotic….wild! And in the wild state intuition takes hold. Selecting wild fungi becomes a liberating expression of profound trust rather than a mad murderous form of mycological Russian roulette. Rest assured, I am not suggesting in anyway that intuitive techniques ought to replace rational and systematic knowledge based identification methods; no, far from it. However, perhaps at some point along the way ones protective stabilizers can be cast aside so as to really enjoy the ride…………
So what exactly was for lunch today? That aesthetically challenging creation on your left consists of fairy ring mushroom pancakes, spear thistle sauce and steamed annual seablite. The pancakes themselves are made from arum flour, carragheen, dried fairy ring mushroom powder and sea salt. The fungi layered between include Dryad’s Saddle (Polyporus squamosus), Gilded Brittlegill (Russula aurea), Charcoal Burner (Russula cyanoxantha), Willow Shield (Pluteus salicinus), Deer Shield (Pluteus cervinus), Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae), Spindle Shank (Collybia fusipes), Matt Bolete (Boletus pruinatus) and Agaricus bresadolanus – probably, possibly? The latter is recorded as ‘edibility unknown’. The spear thistle sauce is made from all parts of the plant above ground. I pureed three plants and liquidised them before forcing through a seive. To the resulting slime (!) was added a little sea salt and a teaspoon of dried dittander flowers. In spite of its appearance it tasted pretty good – but then, I was hungry.
As a culture and cross culturally we, as human beings, manage to punctuate the year with festive celebrations reflecting key transitions or times of power and plenty within nature’s all encompassing realm. As the embodiment of such, we not only envision a diverse pantheon of mythical and semi mythical beings – the green man of spring plenitude, the grape bearing Dionysus of debauched bacchanalian revelries, the shamanically journeying St.Nicholas with his red and white mycological attire and fly agaric gorging reindeer, but have also designated countless plants as being similarly associated either generally with these figures themselves, or as bearing witness and symbolic reflection to the specific attributes they embody. And yet, two plants seem conspicuous by their absence, by the absence of their seemingly self-evident symbolic potential to carry the explosively creative force of a dawning tradition; a new underground wave of ecstatic celebration and raging wild festivities: Arum maculatum and the Betulas or various birches. In the latter case it is the inebriating brew made from it’s shaft flowing phallic sap that almost seems to cry out for the absent bacchanalian carnival throng of stumbling licentious debauchery. Then, the cock headed cuckoo pint (pintle – a slang dialect for ‘penis’ according to Richard Mabey), with it’s semen-like starch oozing scrotal tubers, seems to literally light the way, leading us deeper and deeper into the gloaming woodland’s blanketing twilight with its seed headed fire touch. What magic awaits us there!? Arise the Arum Man. Prepare the burning initiation with your skin puncturing needley sap. Lead on, lead on……..
Today was a frightening day, an unnerving day. I ran out of all flour of any variety. This is a problem because it takes at least 2-3 days to gather, sort and process the raw materials before a fine usable flour can be had. This is doubly problematic because tomorrow I will be in London for virtually the whole day. What can I take for a packed lunch? Anyway, I made a good start this morning by collecting 2½ kilos of arum tubers – 500g more than I did the first time. This took 1½ hours, which is pretty good going. Mind you, it did take another 1 1/2 hours to scrub them all. If all goes to plan that should give me 500g of flour. On Thursday I will gather further flour plants.
Food wise, today was fairly basic: wild oats and stewed cherry plums for breakfast; nettle, seaweed and dittander soup with wild flour biscuits for lunch; Wild things cakes (burgers) – frozen from day 6, with wild salad for dinner, and a face stuffing of ripe, plump and juicy blackberries.
I left for London at 7am this morning and got back at 9pm. This was a day I had dreaded given that it had so unfortunately coincided with my having run out of all supplies – except about 3oz of wild flour pastry and a bit of soup. In the grass near the station I spied a good-sized circle of healthy looking fairy ring mushrooms and made a mental note not to forget them – they would be my dinner. For breakfast I gorged on fantastic ripe cherries and blackberries that were also near the train station and, for lunch, took with me a double-concentrated nettle and seaweed soup. With four different back-to-back meetings to attend throughout the day I had thought I would need, appreciate and definitely benefit from this new high octane advanced botanical formulation. Indeed, I did – especially after finding a few of my salty wild flour biscuits wrapped in a little bag and stuffed in the side pocket of my rucksack. Blessed be the fairies – or an incredibly poor memory! At the time of making those biscuits I had been somewhat disappointed in the result – far too salty I had thought. Nevertheless, sweating and dashing from place to place, I revised my opinion. With each bite my whole body smiled, informing me that, OK, perhaps ordinarily they would have been too salty but today they were nothing less than perfect. Nevertheless, of the food items I did take with me, there was one other that really made the day. I knew that at all these meetings I would be offered tea, coffee or some other kind of drink. I also knew that if I didn’t take something particularly and distractingly flavoursome, I’d be drooling over everybody else’s coffee and drifting off into caffeine dream-time. The answer was a whole thermos flask of hot wild cherry juice. Amazing stuff! A swig throughout the day kept me alert the whole time – very unusual for me. What a long way I’ve come since the day before commencing this wild food adventure. That evening I lay awake trembling at the thought of a slow and painful caffeine free suicide.
Let’s forget about the food items I took up to London because the day’s greatest pleasures came from the belly of the beast herself. London provided, and not just well but magnificently, astoundingly! OK, I know about global warming: I know also that London has it’s own microclimate, one that means that – everything else being equal, on a given day London can have a 2-4 degree higher temperature than the surrounding counties; and I also know that sometimes plants can fruit earlier than usual because…well, because…because they just do. I know all these things, but I never thought that they would add up to the most scrumptious fully blackened mulberries and the most pendulous of sweet succulent figs in July. But they did! These gems were tucked away in a small central park. Leaving the park with the lovely people I’d come to meet, we discussed the issue of fruit trees in public places and the fact that very few people ate from this particular mulberry tree – not knowing what the fruit were. I glanced an appreciative look back towards the tree. A young father stood below as a little boy clambered about the branches for the tree’s luscious fruit. The next generation already knows.
And so at 9pm I strolled across the grass from the train. After such a fruitful and fulfilling day how could I possibly leave my last little piece of pastry feeling raw and lacking fulfilment? I gathered the morning-spied mushrooms, a little sea water, some seabeet and a few seakale leaves. In an instant fulfilment was had by all!
Days 19-22 (19th-22nd July): Flour power!!!!!!!!!
I’m now about two thirds of the way through this wild food month. It will end on August the 3rd rather than on the 31st of July. Although the challenge has been and continues to be an immensely enjoyable one, in some ways I’d really like it to finish as soon as possible – excluding all animal products has made it far harder than it could otherwise have been so successfully completing the month would be enough for me. Unfortunately though, I couldn’t get an earlier booking for my post-diet medical so will have to continue until then. But what is fortunate is that I have two things in my favour which will help me sprint for home, in what must now be the dietary home straight: steely determination and flour power! Running out of flour a few days ago was the lowest point of the month for me. I managed to gather some of the raw materials on the day I ran out. However, a full day in London followed by putting on a 12-hour foraging course left me with no time to prepare them. Tomorrow I will be running another 12-hour foraging course then, on Tuesday, I’m off to Gent in Belgium for five days. That will be seriously challenging. I’ll be concentrating and powdering my soups to take with me and of course I’ll be packing all my various different flours. Best of all though will be the biscuits I’ll be taking – as yet unmade.
This might sound like a waffley digression but it’s actually the biscuit story: A couple of days ago I gathered about 10 really good wild garlic leaves and had wanted to wrap them in fried giant puff ball which, sadly, I’d been unable to find. Not to be defeated, I hatched a plan even more likely to be doomed to failure: making my own humous! Wild garlic leaves, I had considered, could be blended with wild poppy seed and boiled burdock roots (as a chickpea substitute). All was going very well. The corn poppy seeds were harvested (about 2 tablespoons worth), the roots gathered and the wild garlic leaves were waiting patiently in the fridge – or so I thought. Unfortunately they had given up waiting, had got into a giant smelly sulk at my inability to find a puffball to combine them with and so had decided to completely decompose – the rotters! Nevertheless, this was actually an irrelevance. Before checking on the garlic a frantic search for the burdock roots had resulted in nothing other than the dawning realization that, yes, I had dug them up but, no, I didn’t have them as I’d left them behind in the flippin’ field! The great thing about phoenixes – and yes I am fantasising about eating one – is there indefatigable ability to rise from the flames, in this case in the form or wild cherry and poppy seed biscuits. My mother helped me pit the wild cherries – all 12 kgs! Actually, I boiled up 10kg and expressed both juice and pulp through a sieve to remove the stones. These were for a pure cherry fruit bar experiment. The fresh-pitted ones are for three different things – summer pudding (pitted and frozen until I’ve all the necessary fruit), pitted and dries for a totally wild Christmas pudding recipe and, also pitted and dried for my lovely poppy seed biscuits.
The labels on the photograph of my finished flour are quite hard to make out. They read as follows: Reedmace seed head flour, Oat and Barley flour, Curly Dock seed flour, Lords and Ladies tuber flour, Alexanders seed flour, Lime seed flour. The bottle of liquid is barley and oat milk – and is gorgeous. And the swept up pile of waste? That the chaff left after my winnowing activities – great fun but a seriously messy business!
Day 23 (23rd July): Getting to the heart of the wild food challenge.
I can’t do anything sufficiently well if my heart’s not fully in it – and I don’t mean 99%. For me doubt is the bane of my life – self-doubt, philosophical doubt, religious and spiritual doubt, all are virulent poisons in whatever guise. True, doubt manifesting as the tinniest of fractions or percentages – like medicine in homeopathic dosage, can act as a positive stimulus in many instances and in varying situations; yet, ultimately, and over prolonged periods of time, it destroys any firm ground which must, quite literally, act as a springboard for positive forward momentum and consequent success.
There is of course always room for questioning ones motives so long as that questioning does not become pathological. Pathological questioning is a manifestation of the most virulent form of doubt, and although it may not stop you in your tracks will slow you down, drain your energy and leave you in a constant state of exhaustion.
I was greatly inspired by comments made by the magician and performer David Blain some years ago – at the time when he was embarking on his Frozen in Time challenge. Having completed a three-week total fast (not excluding water though!) about 6 years ago I know that any difficulties are purely mental. Asked by a journalist how he could do it, how he could stand the repeated acts of submersion into freezing cold water as preparation for his stunt, David Blaine simply commented that that once he had made his mind up to do it, that was it. That is the key: no doubt; 100% commitment.
At university I used to love writing essays but found them almost impossible to begin – often feeling that the task was quite simply impossible. One technique really helped me get around this. I would tear off four blank sheets of A4 paper and meditate upon them for half an hour, visualizing them full of my (wise!?) words. What they would be was unknown, all that was known with 100% certainty is that within a few days they would be there – time would pass and commitment would generate its own creative force.
So too then with this wild food diet. Today’s blank page has been filled with two kinds of wild flour heart-shaped biscuits. Both have the same wild flour base – arum, oat, barley, tree mallow, curly dock seed and reedmace seed head flour, but with different flavouring ingredients: wild cherry and poppy seed for one and dried dulse and alexanders seed for the others. These will be essential supplies for my trip to Gent. Dinner was a wild mushroom and seabeet noodle stack with wild salad and fennel tossed giant puffball – an interesting flavour combination but not necessarily one to be recommended or repeated! Desert was delicious: a fresh fruit salad of blackberries, purple gooseberries and rosehips.
Day 24 (24th July): Preparations for a journey.
Before setting off for Gent earlier this evening, I spent the morning making final preparations for departure – the two most important being to finish off both my wild cherry fruit slice and powdered soup. Last night I took 12 frozen portions of soup – 6 of nettle and 6 of mixed seaweed (dulse, laver, carragheen, sea lettuce, enteromorpha, toothed wrack, bladder wrack, sugar kelp and oar weed), defrosted them and then poured the whole lot into a pillowcase to squeeze out all the liquid. I boiled the liquid down to about 1 pint before remixing this with the extracted solids. I spread the resulting mixture out thinly on an oven tray and left it over night in the oven at the lowest possible temperature. This morning I ground the resulting solid mass to a fine powder in my coffee grinder. 12 bags of soup now weighs in at a grand total of 198 grams! That divides into 33 g per day including tonight.
The making of the wild cherry slice involved a roughly similar process. Last night I places 20 lbs of wild cherries into a large pan, squeezed them with my hands to begin extracting the juice (messy fun!) and then boiled them for 15 minutes before crushing with a potato masher. After leaving to cool for a while I pressed the juicy pulp through a very large sieve to leave behind all the pits (stones). Next, the pulp was tipped into a pillowcase and as much juice as possible squeezed out (even messier fun!!). I boiled the juice down to 3 pints before mixing it back in with the extracted fruit solids. Again, just as with the soup, I spread this on an oven tray and left in the oven over night on a very low temperature setting. The photograph on the left doesn’t really give a good sense of scale but the resulting wild cherry slice, now rolled up as a log, is about 30cm long, weighs 2 lbs and is incredibly rich in flavour! That should keep the hunger demons and snack craving devils at bay!
Day 25-29 (25th-29th July): We’re off to see the Wizard, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. You’ll find he is a whiz of a Wiz if ever a Wiz there was. If ever oh ever a Wiz there was The Wizard of Oz is one because, because, because, because, because, because – because of the wonderful things he does. We’re off to see the Wizard, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz!
What a perfect crossing: a sublime, floating, dreamy, sun-kissed, gently wave-rocked trance of a crossing. From Ramsgate to Ostend we lay – Mike, Anna and myself, backs to the deck, weight fully given and held by the boat and undulating sea:Oceanic and elemental bliss.
Before starting this wild food month I had assumed that I would be at home in Kent for its duration. That I’d planned to go to a taiji congress in Gent, Belgium, during the last week of July is something that had completely slipped my mind. I have lived near Canterbury for almost 20 years now and, from a foraging point of view, staying put for such a prolonged length of time has distinct advantages. Certainly in situations when I wish to forage but am pressed for time, knowing the locality well pays off – especially in terms of knowing exactly where to go to find specific forageable foods without time-wasting inefficiency (of course, such inefficiencies have there place, are usually extremely productive and, with hindsight, turn out not to have been inefficiencies after all!). On a 100% wild food diet the comfort of a well known locality becomes paramount, and although I was very much looking forward to visiting Gent, two things made me slightly anxious: my lack of familiarity with the local habitat and the fact that Gent is a city.
It is quite rare that I’m pleasantly surprised; it is almost never that I am wonderfully, deliriously and gobsmackingly bowled over with delighted and enthusiastic surprise. Generally, almost as a rule, I can’t stand cities, but what a dream Gent is! The whole city must surely have been designed and co-created by St. Madonna del Ghisallo – the patron saint of cyclists and St. John of Rila -patron saint of wild plants (OK, I made this last one up; however he’s a good candidate as it is said of him that, “dressed only in a leather coat and sustaining himself on wild plants, he spent his time in fasting, prayer, vigil and other ascetic labours). I took my bike to Gent and cycled in and around the grounds of the numerous government builds, schools and universities. And, my goodness, there are weeds and wild patches of land EVERYWHERE! No council workers in masks and protective clothing attempting to eradicate all remnants of the natural world here. To the contrary, the enlightened denizens of Gent would seem to embrace and celebrate the integrity of wilderness and, in so doing, have established a firm footing in the realm of inspirational and bio-diverse ecological town planning (I call them denizens out of respect because another meaning of the word is: a wild plant, probably foreign, that keeps its footing!).
I gathered red grapes from the hedgerow, managing to produce a litre of pure sweet juice, about 60 lovely ripe figs from one especially virile tree, hundreds of delicious hazel nuts from around the local sports centre and, from the same place, a daily replenished supply of full-flavoured pavement mushrooms (Agaricus bitorquis), a gorgeous and repeated shirt staining splatter of tree shaken mulberries as well as the expected complement of salad leaves and greens
In the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament there is repeated reference to the sweet smell of burnt offerings made to Yahweh – usually indicating meat sacrifices. Some authorities suggest that the sweet smell refers not to the meat itself but to the use of frankincense. Maybe, but for me, as predominantly a vegetarian, it’s a strange association and one that I’ve always found faintly nauseating – an aroma unbefitting of God. Now, though, I have made a fantastic discovery – a truly ambrosial sweet smell befitting all and any God or gods – the sweet aroma of not quite fully ripened hazelnuts boiling in spring water! After a few days this became the basis for every dinner as the whole cooking process became almost addictive (unlike the daily shelling of 150+ nuts that was certainly far from addictive!). First I would boil the halved nuts for a few minutes before adding the fungi and, lastly, the vegetable leaves. I varied the dish by using differing combinations of fungi and leaves each day.
Figure/ground, ground/figure, figure/ground, ground/figure. In painting, in thought and in life ground is the context for figure and can infuse it with both meaning and significance. Viewed from a different perspective ground comes to the fore and challenges for predominance. The artist M C Escher played with these ideas with fascinating results. For the whole of this month wild food has been my figure whilst everything else has been cast in the role of ground – although never as mere background. However, the wizardly and inspiring work of Dr Shen can never simply be cast in such a way. Both he and his healing system known as Buqi are incredibly interesting and worthy of personal investigation. My only regret is that, as perhaps one of his worst students, over the last three years my practice has been woefully inadequate – an opportunity missed. It is with affection that I call him a wizard and not out of irreverence. A personal treatment from him gave me the fearless courage to embark on my current path as a forager, and the use of his healing techniques enabled me – in three days – to completely remove an incredibly inflamed leg rash that I had carried for a whole year! At the taiji conference he spoke about the principle of the three justs: as applied to the use of taiji forces whether for healing, defence or attack, the key is to act with just enough force, at just the right time and in just the right place. This is a simple yet profound theory and, like all such theories, has application far beyond its original context. It offers a blueprint for sustainable and ecologically minded foraging!
But, why not just ‘the wizard’, rather than ‘the Wizard of Oz’? Well, in the classic 1939 film of that name the scarecrow, lion and tin man search out the wizard in the hope that he will remedy their mistakenly perceived inadequacies – brainless stupidity, lack of courage and a heartless lack of feeling respectively. As a profound healing system working on the physical, mental and spiritual level, Buqi seeks to engender health in the fullest sense of the word, correcting both real and perceived inadequacies of ones total health situation. However, there is more. That more challenges my often overly rational outlook on life and is one reason I find the system so fascinating. On the last day of the conference a slide show of photographs taken during the even was shown entitled ‘Capturing the Spirit’. Indeed, it did. What were described as, and understood to be, spirit manifestations appeared in many photographs taken on different cameras. What did they look like? They manifested as variously sized circles or bubbles of whitish light – just like the bubble Glinda the good witch of The Wizard of Oz appears in. Curious, most curious!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Day 30 (30th July): Simon the fisher of men starts to wheel me in.
Some people may question the notion that the body knows what it needs nutritionally. Is such knowledge – if it can be said to exist at all – simply crowded out by the dictates of modernity? What is clear is that amidst the deafeningly caffeine-busy roar of modern society there are vested interests keen to drown out the very possibility of that still small intuitive voice. It has been claimed that most Westerners fed antidepressive chemical solutions by the pharmaceutical industry – those overblown pseudo-panaceas such as Prozac, Citralapram, Seroxat etc, are actually Omega-3 deficient due to a diet of over-processed foods. However, such deficiencies are merely symptomatic of deeper and more fundamental deficits within the whole Western world view and (dis-) order – deficiencies for which the only lasting remedy is a full scale revolution …….. Anyway, of course, it’s common knowledge that pregnant women can experience cravings for specific and often unusual foods – foods that, perhaps unbeknown to them, do in fact contain the unique nutritional qualities required by the mother or growing baby at specific times throughout pregnancy.
Thoughts, images and desires can also impregnate the mind, swelling to a nagging maturity that demands immediate fulfilment in action. For the past 6 days I’ve been harbouring a growing obsession for both fish and eggs, and although in recent months – and after a break of many years- I’ve come back round to the idea of eating fish that I myself have caught and killed, passing by Simon’s fish counter at the Goods Shed Farmers market in Canterbury today was just too much too bear. He read my need and wheeled me in. I’m now the proud owner of a smoked haddock and smoked mackerel- as fishy and slippery as my shifting moral sensibilities. I’m greatly looking forward to eating them in a couple of days as a smoked haddock omelette and….well, perhaps I’ll just imitate a guillemot and toss the whole mackerel straight down my throat!
I wonder if perhaps my diet is lacking in essential fatty acids. Fish – especially oily fish are a good source of omega 6 fatty acids. However, for maximum health potential omega 6 intake is ideally balanced out with a corresponding dietary source of omega 3 fatty acids in the ratio of between 2:1 and 4:1. It is just as well then that just before leaving Ostend last night I had a good nose around. The result was a great bounty of evening primrose seedpods. The seeds are rich in omega 3:gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and this morning I produced almost a kilo of seedpod flour – the experimentation continues.
Of course, the use of intuition is all very well but, it might be argued, without sufficient knowledge, one is taking great risks. Consider the following: Flax seeds are also a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, and yet the unripe seeds are known to contain a natural form of cyanide. What about unripe primrose seeds and curly dock seeds and tree mallow seeds and………..
Day 31 (31st July): The last supper.
At the moment I’m struggling to write a book on wild food. With in that, my aim is to record at least all the butterfly and moth species whose larvae feed on the wild food entries I’ve included – if not a whole wealth of other creatures large and small. In a more ecologically aware age it is surely time to go beyond the current growing awareness of wild plants – an awareness divorced from the broader ecological and environmental picture; an awareness that, in seeing wild food plants purely in utilitarian terms vis-à-vis human consumption, risks creating a situation where the last supper really does have an end-of-days biblical resonance for a whole host of insect species. We need more foragers with acute ecological and naturalistic sensibilities such as Richard Mabey and less of the let’s-strip-the-countryside-and-deliver-to-swanky-London-restaurants breed. However, even given these noble thoughts, I still would not have believed that I could ever have found a maggot endearing. But I did! I spent about an hour photographing the various gymnastic escapades of the maggot (let’s call her Hazel!) in the picture to the left. What a beautiful creature she is!
So, what was my last supper?
Four Layered Nut Roast Served with Dulse and a Wild Rocket and Chickweed Salad.
*Some people are sensitive to this fungus – not that I’ve ever met such a person, so caution should be advised. According to Steve Kirk, writing in the latest edition of The Bushcraft Magazine, “a significant percentage of people (1 in 10) who have eaten this fungus have exhibited an allergic reaction, so when your first time comes, try only a little. It is particularly important not to eat it raw. Also, avoid any growing on conifers, eucalyptus or locust trees (Robinia) as these seem to cause people the most problems.”
For the dulse:
For the salad:
For the dulse:
For the salad:
To serve (hot or cold):
This is perhaps my favourite amongst all the dishes I’ve come up with this month so it seems both quite fitting and fortunate to finish with it. The different flavours and textures all work well together however, for me, the best thing about it stems from the fact that it’s a classic make-use-of-leftovers dish. The seabeet stems where left over from the day before I went to Belgium and the marsh samphire……well, what a state that was in! I had picked a bag of it to take with me to Gent but had left it behind. I found it rotting in the garden on my return. Nevertheless, after picking through it for half an hour I did managed to rescue just enough to produce a generous layer for the nut roast. The roast also used up the very last of my sea salt and arum flour – as well as the hazelnuts from my travels.
I have found that as a general rule when using carragheen extract to set various food items, if you wish to eat them hot – especially if intending to cut or reshape, it is best to allow the food to cool thoroughly in the fridge first, then cut or shape and only after this reheat.
Over the past month I’ve had great fun addressing the challenge of eating purely plant based wild and/or foraged foods. In fact, completion of the task leaves me feeling as much saddened at its final conclusion as delighted of its success. But, of course, in fact the adventure has only just begun………………………
Any diet – especially if prolonged, has implications for heath. Some diets may produce positive short-term benefits yet, if followed over a prolonged period, produce detrimental effects on one’s health. Of course, some can have both immediate short term benefits as well as longer term ones when they are pursued not as ‘diet’ in the narrow sense, but as ‘diet’ in the broader and more general sense. At that point, even following a fairly rigid and restrictive eating regime, the diet has become second nature, the obvious and continued health benefits do the talking in terms of sustaining motivation, and the whole process has been integrated harmoniously with one’s life or life style. At the moment I’m uncertain into which category a 100% vegan foraged diet would fall – I think it would probably be the former, unless certain vitamin and mineral supplements were taken, at which point, obviously, it wouldn’t be 100% foraged (if such statistics actually matter).
I haven’t been for my post-diet medical examination yet, but a wonderfully unscientific “I feel great!” would seem to indicate that, at least in terms of my health, the outcome has been nothing but positive. Pursuing such a relatively restricted diet was a challenge. Nevertheless, I really do believe that the degree of that particular challenge is as nothing when compared to the challenge of avoiding what I call the elastic band effect. This is a common place observation particularly amongst those that one might call career dieters: lose vast amounts of weight and then, in the weeks and months following the end of the diet, pile all the pounds back on again – plus, sometimes, a few extra to boot! Why this happens is complex and very much down to individual psychology and habitual patterns in both thought and behaviour. Returning to the rubber band metaphor, it is as if to suddenly embark on a radical change in diet is to begin with a band of very thick elastic whereas, on the other hand, gradually integrating the diet into one’s prior eating arrangements is to stretch one’s efforts against a much thinner and less resistant elastic. The question is how to stretch that elastic band so far and for so prolonged a time that, like old rubber, it loses all its elastic pull, snaps and liberates, and is unable to drag you back to square one? Certainly much of the back-dragging tension can be released by understanding the diet in ever increasing circles of interconnectivity and meaning rather than in more reductive ways – the ultimate reductive ways, of course, being those that obsess purely about fat or calorie intake.
At the very beginning of the third week into my diet – at which point I had lost a stone – a friend of mine remarked on how I should write a book on ‘The Wild Food Diet’; a book which he anticipated would become the basis for the next faddy and fashionable diet sensation. I thought he was serious at first until he then delivered his punch line with absurdist aplomb: “It would be great, lose a stone in two weeks and then 10 stone in 20 weeks!” Perhaps to the clinically obese this wouldn’t sound absurd at all but, of course, my friend knew that I weighed 10 1/2 stone! I dismissed my friend’s book idea out of hand as, indeed, it was meant to be. However, over subsequent weeks, the idea has returned repeatedly to mind – each time in less outrageous garb.
Such a diet has both simultaneously much against it and much to recommend it. Clearly, for any diet to work for a large number of people it has, in the first place, to be realistically achievable. As regards a foraged diet – whether 100% or otherwise, this isn’t currently the case simply due to the vast majority of would-be forage dieters’ lack of botanical knowledge. Imagine though that you could hire a personal trainer for a month. Imagine, of course, ‘Dr Fergus Drennan, nutritionist and wild food expert’ – with his Dr Gillian Mckeith qualification – guiding you to dietary success (£5000 per month whatever happens – death is no excuse for non-payment; thank you very much!)! Seriously though, for the vast majority of people such a diet would provide a wonderful education in general nature awareness. It would be rich in meaning, connecting to much wider issues concerning ecology, sustainability, a sense of place and purpose and so on………
So, did the elastic snap me back to chocolate and chips garnished with a bit of wood sorrel? Not as yet. However, I’m sure that a month is not sufficient time to undo longstanding poor eating habits – and I do have a few. Actually, in the last week I have been obsessing about just three things, none of which, fortunately, fall into the loving-junk-food-on-the-rebound category: fish, eggs and a pasta slice I made a couple of weeks ago. The eggs and fish I probably desire because there is some nutritional element in there for which my body has started to fall short. As for the pasta slice, after running a foraging course midway through my wild food month I was left with a substantial amount of leftovers. At lunch we had prepared nettle and seabeet pasta (both those plants used as pasta colouring) with wild mushrooms and various Chenopodium species, as well as a large wild salad with slow roast cherry tomatoes. At the time I didn’t eat any due to the non-wild elements: the pasta flour, salad dressing, cherry tomatoes and frying oil. However, not one to waste things, I blitzed the lot in a food processor with a couple of beaten eggs and seasoning, then pressed it all into a baking tray and cooked it in the oven for half an hour. So, not having tried this before, I was curious to find out exactly what it was like. The result, as it turned out (not always the case with these experiments!) was lovely, as was everything else – the kipper, omelette and only partially wild salad.
Other than breaking my 100% wild food diet it was a day of normality – still foraging around but in the realms of a much lower percentage. I gathered seaweed to dry on the cloths line, nettles for making a large batch of soup, and was lucky enough to find a fairly big Giant Puffball. Actually, I’ve been waiting for about two months to gather seaweed to dry in this way. Ideally, May or June would have been the best times. However, given our somewhat topsy-turvy summer and that at least two days of hot continuous dry and sunny weather are essential, it only became possible to do this today. As for the nettles, it’s true that August isn’t the season for gathering good quality nettles. Fortunately, if you can harvest from crops that are intermittently cut back throughout the year, it is possible to harvest the new growth that this stimulates – and so I did!
PS. I would be very interested to hear from people concerning any aspect of wild food. Right now, though, I am extremely keen to hear from people who have been viewing this page and who can tell me about the alignment of pictures. Working in Macromedia Dreamweaver, the alignments bear no resemblance to the way they appear on the web. This makes it vary hard to use. Does anybody know how to get around this? Are the pictures you’re seeing obviously misaligned or do they seem to marry up correctly with the text? When I open up the web page on my computer they are perfectly aligned, but a couple of people have told me that they see them misaligned. There’s probably an obvious reason but I’m not very computer literate! Please enlighten me or, put another way, align me with the truth!!