Living off the land
It's amazing what can be foraged if you know where to go
Fergus Drennan is a professional forager. He lives in Whitstable, Kent, and spends his time scouring hedgerows, estuaries and fields for things to eat. He calls himself a vegetarian - though he does occasionally eat meat, so long as it is meat he has come across himself. In other words, he eats roadkill. Drennan has salvaged foxes, owls, badgers and squirrels (among other things) from roadsides. Foxes and squirrels are tasty, he says, though he has reservations about owls and badgers (which tend to taste "urinal"). But mostly he concentrates his efforts on plants, mushrooms and seaweed.
This past week, I spent a day foraging with Drennan. We started off in Canterbury. He led the group - there were four of us - to a small area of scrubland next to the train station and started plucking leaves from various unpromising-looking weeds. He kept up a running commentary as he went: "This one is delicious in salads, although it's pretty bitter; this one is good stewed with meat." At one point he uncovered some eye-wateringly bitter rocket (urban areas are full of it, apparently).
Next we headed for a small river - the Stour - where Drennan fashioned rods from the stalks of Japanese knotweed. These he baited with mackerel given to him by a fishmonger. None of us caught any fish, or had so much as a bite (we were after pike). In fact, some of us had trouble getting our bait in the river. I failed to clear the tall knotweed stalks on the bank, and another member of our group lodged his mackerel, spectacularly, in a tree on the far side. Drennan shrugged. "I wasn't really expecting anyone to catch anything," he said.
We climbed into the car and headed for the coast. This time our target was less elusive: wild cherries, which in coastal areas grow plentifully at this time of year. Smaller and less sweet than the cultivated variety, they are none the less delicious, and it was hard to resist popping them straight in my mouth. Once we'd filled a couple of baskets, Drennan produced bottles partly filled with gin and sugar. We pricked the cherries with pins and stuffed them into the bottles. The gin, our guide explained, was a going-home present: it would be ready to drink in two or three months.
What did we spend the rest of the day doing? We looked on the sides of dead trees for Jew's Ear mushrooms (which really do look like ears). We picked marsh samphire from an estuary. We stopped by the side of a dual carriageway to pick more cherries; while there, we stripped a walnut tree of its nuts. We stopped off at Drennan's sister's house for a lunch of nettle and dulse seaweed soup and chickweed and sea purslane quiche. We returned for dinner, for which Drennan grilled some mackerel that we ate with wild cherry sauce and samphire.
It was a day of unbroken fun. How could it have been otherwise? The good news is that Drennan runs courses. For details, log on to www.wildmanwildfood.com