The following questions were sent to me by Giovanna Dunmall for a piece for the online edition of Plenty Magazine. What a great journalist - one of the very few who has resisted recourse to the peeling-the-carcass-of-the-tarmac' clichés, and who has simply stuck to what I actually said. Here is her piece:
There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch.
What was the first thing you foraged and what do you remember about it? Do you still remember how it tasted?
I can?t forget the experience as it was both fascinating and disgusting in equal measure, although funnily enough I quite like the plant now ? the humble and ubiquitous dandelion. I must have been about 6 or 7 years old and, with my mother, I regularly collected big bunches of dandelion leaves to feed our pet tortoise, Creep. It had always been both a source of fascination and wonder how he would eat his dandelion leaves and tomato halves with such slow, relishing, methodical and ponderous deliberation. Surely they must taste like heaven on earth! Like Creep, I loved tomatoes so, like Creep, I thought I?d love dandelion leaves too. But they were, quite literally, a bitter disappointment.
Why are people so cut off from the land and natural life nowadays?
This is a very hard question to answer without making sweeping generalisations, endless theories and ceaseless speculations. Any worthwhile answer lies in action.
Collectively, as a species, and in the geological blink of an eye, we have created an ecological crisis. The causes are multiple and complex yet most seem to revolve around the voracious resource depleting dictates and polluting inefficiencies of global capitalism. Global capitalism is a monster greater than the some of its parts ? us. It creates false desires that become perceived as both needs and rights and so, in our delusion and blindness to our corresponding responsibilities we degrade both ourselves and the environment. Global Capitalism?s secularising pseudo-scientism displaces millennially held religious and spiritual belief, which were borne out of a perceived interconnection, respect for and reverence towards the natural world. Leaving us spiritually bankrupt, it offers ever-new products (stuff) for consumption and distractive amusement for the crying soul. In a world of market forces and ?just-in-time? deliveries and dispatches, there seems to be just no time for reflection or to perceive and appreciate nature?s intricate cycles and seasons, as these become hidden in a world where food is available throughout one long continuous and monolithic season. People spend so long working to chase false consumerist dreams, that at the end of the day they are too exhausted to do anything other than slouch down in front of the TV. They might watch a nature program and delude themselves that they thereby know something about it ? such vicarious living often only serves to keep us disconnected.
Do you see your foraging as a passion, a job or a hobby?
Foraging for me is all and everything, both a hobby and a job, yet also a passion -and sometimes simply a pain in the arse!
What did you study at university?
At university I studied World Religions - the psychology, philosophy and sociology of religion. It?s a fascinating subject. One of the things that disturbed me immensely and still rings in my ears as it tries to compete with the implications of what I said above, is the following quote?well, it was something like this: ?Human Beings will only be able to adequately address the current ecological crisis, not by looking to their God or gods for salvation, but through the dawning realisation that we are totally alone and must personally take responsibility.? Humanistic philiosophies may or may not have the answers. A fascinating guide for the perplexed is a wonderful series of books: Religions of the World and Ecology. Every book is well worth reading. Included within the series: Christianity and Ecology - Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans; Buddhism and Ecology - The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds; Islam and Ecology - A Bestowed Trust; Confucianism and Ecology - The Interconnection of Heaven, Earth and Humans; Daoism and Ecology - Ways within a Cosmic Landscape; Hinduism and Ecology - The Intersection of Eath, Sky and Water; Indigenous Traditions and Ecology - The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community; Jainism and Ecology - Nonviolence in This Web of Life.
Can you tell me a bit more about your student digs (i.e. the tent out in the field I have read about-if it is true). For example, the practicalities: did you live alone?where was the field? what did you do for cooking, washing and toilet-going? did you ever get evicted? how did you study? What did you eat and drink? did you ever buy food? did you have electricity? what did people think of your living and eating habits? How much money do you think you saved?
I studied at The University of Wales, Lampeter. This was and is a gorgeous little university set in the beautiful surroundings of the West Wales countryside. Whilst there I stayed in many places. Through one academic year and two winters I lived alone in a tent. Although throughout that whole period I suffered from excruciatingly painful sciatica and was in a protracted break up from my girlfriend, I?ve not lived more intensely or been happier. For the most part my tent was hidden behind a dry-stone wall in a small woodland next to the philosophy department. One weekend I went elsewhere only to return and find that wood mice had chewed my tent to pieces to get at my food. To get around this problem, I sewed up all the holes except one. To this I attached a plastic tunnel which led to a large screw-top jar inside the tent. Every day I would fill this with past-the-sell-by-date nuts and museli from the local wholefood shop. This led to an explosion in the mouse population and extra food for the owl that lived in the tree next to my tent. I became part of an unusually tight-looped ecosystem! For myself, I obtained left over ?wasted- food from the student union restaurant, wild food from the countryside, heavily price-reduced organic fruit and veg from a nation-wide organics supplier?s overflow shop, as well as conventional food from the town shops. I saved lots of money ?although not on museli! ? and managed to study very successfully. At night I would work in the library until close just to keep warm. Very few people knew I lived in a tent and, of those, only two knew where it was. What they thought about it, I don?t know, although one of the girls who sought me out ?with difficulty- from various clues did say, ?It?s all very SAS?.
When did you start Wild Man Wild Food?
I started Wild Man Wild Food about a year and a half ago.
Which restaurants and markets do you provide food to?
Before setting up Wild Man Wild Food I jointly ran a company called Forager with a business partner. He was very keen on expanding wild food deliveries to accommodate the London market. We delivered to The Ivy, Fifteen, Le Caprice, Lindsey House, Morro, J.Sheekey?s, The Boxwood Café and various other top restaurants. For me this was a big mistake. Picking to order was neither fun nor environmentally sustainable and required me to own a car ? prior to that I had only been involved with small local deliveries by bicycle. I packed it in and went my own way. My priorities are first to feed myself, then occasionally family and friends and, only then ? and even more infrequently, my local farmer?s market and its restaurant kitchen.
Have you ever been ill as a result of the food you have eaten?
Until a couple of years ago I could genuinely have said that I have never been ill as a result of eating wild food. But I have. My girlfriend at the time picked a mixed basket full of Field Mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) and Yellow Stainer Mushrooms (Agaricus xanthodermus). The latter is poisonous ? causing unpleasant but not life threatening symptoms. She had picked the Field Mushrooms with the stems still attached, but only the caps of the Yellow Stainers. One of the main identifying features is to cut the base of the stem with a sharp knife. Yellow Stainers flush an immediate vibrant yellow, Field Mushrooms do not. I cut the stems of the Field Mushrooms, saw no reaction, and concluded that the whole basket was fine. Vomiting and diarrhoea told another story!
Can you pick a few of the most interesting fruit, vegetables and meats you have eaten through the seasons that you would NEVER find in a supermarket?
About 20 years ago I visited a butterfly farm. The enclosure was artificially heated and provided the ideal habitat for a monster-sized Cheese Plant (Monstera deliciosa) that was growing there. There were three large ripe fruit on the ground, which I ate ? a delicious fruit tasting like a cross between a banana and a pineapple. That was a stupid thing to do because I didn?t know if they were edible or not. Plant-wise, I found the seaweed Alcyonidium diaphanum very interesting. Actually, although I thought of it as some kind of seaweed at the time I discovered that in fact it's a species of bryozoa, a type of aquatic invertebrate in the animal kingdom. Still can't help thinking of it as a seaweed though! Anyway, it's packed full of salt water but if you prick it and soak in tap water for 30 mins you can change the salinity to more palatable proportions. Unfortunately I developed blisters on my arms after gathering it. Apparently it is responsible for the eczematic condition known as Dogger Bank Itch. Eggs found within freshly killed roadkill birds are an unexpected treat. You wouldn?t get them in a so-called super market: ?Excuse me, can you tell me which isle the unlaid eggs are in??!!! Interesting roadkill meats I have eaten include pheasant, rabbit, hare, duck, squirrel, owl, moorhen, coot, lapwing, seagull, hedgehog, wren, blackbird??
Do you eat food you have foraged for every day? Or do you have days when you are just too tired to go out and find it? If so, where do you buy your food?
I eat foraged food virtually everyday. That isn?t as difficult as it might seem. I cook up large batches of soup ? nettle or seaweed for instance, and freeze them in portions of 60 or more. I apply the same method to the storing of pies, risottos etc etc. Of course, some things like salad leaves need to be gathered and eaten fresh.
Do you die of boredom or get frustrated when in a supermarket?
If I am passing by a so-called supermarket, I often nip in for the sole purpose of using their toilets, as they are usually fanatically clean. Of course, they can be quite hard to find when your senses are bombarded by a disorientating riot of colourful signs competing for your mind and attention. Having said that, I do very occasionally use supermarkets ? then feel self-loathing at my own hypocrisy. I like the stance of The Ecologist Magazine. It runs features on how to kick the supermarket habit ?as it calls it. In other words, it informs with alternatives rather than indulging in finger-wagging condemnation.
Have you ever foraged for food in far-flung countries. What did you find?
I have foraged in Italy, Romania and Greece. I also met an old woman selling dried mushrooms near the Great Wall of China. I looked for some myself, found a few, went back to the lady but, through the language barrier, was unable to establish if they were the same as she had been picking. I also picked a few wild plants that I saw the locals gathering in North-eastern China.
Would you say foraging for food is time consuming?
Everything is time consuming ? some things are delightfully so like foraging, other things horribly so ? like sitting at the computer writing this!
Are you a good cook?
Although I took a two-year chef training course, I would only say that I am a fairly average cook. Having said that, the use of wild food in cooking can lift an average cook to the dizzy heights of chefly genius ? a progression punctuated, of course, by downright inedible and disgusting culinary disasters!!
Have you ever thought of starting a restaurant yourself serving food found in the wild?
I thought about it for a few seconds and was then lucky enough to be able to put the stupid idea out of my mind ? forever.
Speaking of roadkill, how can you be sure the animal in question has really been killed by a vehicle and not by a disease?
You can never be 100% certain about that. I have found that people chasing after 100% certainty usually have serious mental problems. With experience and common sense, though, I would say you can achieve about 90% certainty. If I were to buy various types of meat from a shop, one thing that would be very certain is that the animal would have suffered specifically for my consumption. Personally, I would find that unacceptable. Other people may think differently and, to a large degree, I respect that ? sometimes.
Have you got veterinary skills? If you found a half-dead animal, what would you do?!
I think the overarching skill a vet must have is compassion ? as no doubt most do. Only the second casualty of the road I have eaten was a pheasant whose neck I snapped. I popped over a fence to have a pee, it was lying there bleeding from the neck and with both a broken wing and leg. I have not been in such a position since ? that is, knowing that an animal?s chance of survival was hopeless, although I have tried to nurse lots of animals back to health. My success rate is only about 20% and of the 80% that have died, I do worry about having prolonged their suffering ? although the rationalisation that my intentions were good helps somewhat.
You consider yourself a vegetarian but you eat fish that has been caught (according to the piece in the Ecologist) and meat from animals you find dead. Are you really a vegetarian?
I am vegetarian 99% of the time. The question is, should I be defined by this or by the 1%?
Somebody emailed me last week demanding that I not call myself a vegetarian. This was my reply:
?I like to be creative with language and concepts. No doubt a heterosexual man who, in a drunken moment, ends up snogging a male friend would still consider himself heterosexual the following morning. Put a teaspoon of yellow paint into a can of pure white paint and we would still call it white. One swallow doesn't make a summer - same logic. Don't murder anyone for 99 years and then butcher a few people on your hundredth birthday, we wouldn't be able to call you a murderer because 99% of the time you weren't....oh, sorry, yes we would....my logic has slipped up.
For me, words in a dictionary are rough guides to meaning and usage. I am free to stretch and abuse concepts as I like - as are you. Rigorous categorisation irritates me - it often results in mindless behaviour and beliefs. Today I won't be eating any meat, nor tomorrow nor the next day.....but then I might change my mind. That is my prerogative.
Where do you buy your lovely vegetarian food - at Tesco? Even if not, you still support them with your tesco.net email address. How does that fit within your hierarchy of values? I find that many vegetarians - who are so for ethical reasons - are incredibly myopic as regards the bigger picture. In spite of Tesco's tokenistic environmental gestures, the fact is that their activities - rooted in global capitalism, seriously harm the environment and, furthermore, their very existence creates animal suffering. Not only do they perpetuate the habit of meat consumption, but in order to sell meat at low prices, much of it must be reared in cost-cutting ways. Such ways NEVER benefit the animals in question. Also, they lock foreign meat producers into a poverty trap of dependency and fear of change. A change to agrarian crop-based farming is far more efficient in terms of land use...etc etc etc.
PS. Have you considered how many animals must die on the roads due to all those people driving to out-of-town Tesco, so-called, super stores!??
Actually, after sending the email, I felt quite ashamed of my self-righteous tone, after all, she has a valid point.
Would you say you are an environmentalist? If yes, what else do you do that is green or environmental in your life?
I?m not desperately keen on ?-ists? and ?-isms? so I will have to say ?no? to this question. Nevertheless I abhor waste and will try to reuse as much as possible, including things I Womble like dumped bits of bicycles and other such things. I buy nearly all my cloths from charity shops, mending holes rather than throwing cloths away. In my foraging work I am increasingly focussing on giving back to the environment rather than take, take, take. In practice, this involves geminating lots of seeds - for example of rosehips, elderberry, wild garlic, sea buckthorn and planting the seedlings back out in their natural habitat.
Oh and the boring stuff: how old are you, where do you live and what are your future plans or ambitions?!
I am 35 years old and live in Herne Bay. That is near Canterbury ? seat of The Church of England, in the county of Kent. It is about 65 miles South East from London.
My mind is bubbling with future plans and ambitions. They are just rough sketches for a possible future. I find the world is too unpredictable to make them more concrete. Anything could happen. The important thing is to remain open to possibilities.
?..or, to be more inclusive, human beings cannot live by bread alone. True? Maybe. Certainly we need to be more inclusive in terms not only of gender or, of course, varied diet, but also in regard to our other needs for self expression ? through music, poetry and art, as well as with respect to a whole plethora of other social, psychological and, no doubt, spiritual needs. However, the question that really interests me concerns wild food. Susan Campbell, in her paper, The Hunting and Gathering of Wild Foods: What?s the point? An Historical Survey - a paper delivered at Oxford and reprinted in Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2004: Wild Food, poses the dilemma quite succinctly when she states, ??.nor have I yet met anyone who could convince me that modern man could subsist on wild food alone, legally or illegally, the year round, in a northern climate.? The question and the challenge, then, stand: Can a person live by wild food alone? There is only one way to answer such a question and that is by actually attempting to do so. However, a further question presents itself: Why would anybody in his or her right mind wish to attempt such a thing?
Having utilised wild foods in my diet for a considerable number of years, I know that the sheer variety and range of what is generally available is quite astonishing. Such a vast myriad of both familiar and more exotic flavours, textures, and unique nutritional dietary contributors means that, given sufficient availability, it would surely be theoretically possible to live on wild food alone. Well?? that remains to be proved by the possible sweat and tears of actual practice. Nevertheless, addressing the question, ?why?? , is at one and the same time to address those less tangible needs which, at the outset, it was admitted that without which we could not live. This is because eating wild food is not just about nutritional sustenance; it?s a lifestyle choice. That choice is in part a personal and practical answer to various disagreements I have with the world, the way it is, or rather, the way it is as an outcome of our interaction with it; the way it is, the way we are, but don?t have to be ? culturally, socially, economically and, of course, environmentally??????.
I?ve been thinking for two weeks now about carrying out the practice: living from only wild food a whole month and have decided to begin on the 30th of June ? just a few days away now. I?m even going to subject myself to a battery of medical tests tomorrow morning. However, as the day itself approaches the likelihood of success seems to do the opposite, retreating instead into the far distance. In the first place, I am so ludicrously busy at the moment that I barely have time to think about cooking a meal, let alone producing one from wild food. In the second place, I thought that although it?s mainly leaves and seaweeds that are available now, this wouldn?t be a problem because, no doubt, I could always top up any nutritional deficit with a choice piece of roadkill; that was, until I had lunch with a friend ? the sparkling Aglaia, She claims to be able to sniff out meat eaters from across the room. Actually, her method is more visual. Apparently it?s the dull eyes - compared with the bright sparkling eyes of the vegetarian - that?s the tell tale give away sign. Is it the shadow of death that dulls the inner flame, a corrupting of the soul to its very core or merely the sluggish arterial flow of stupefying saturated fats that deadens the vital light? Who knows the answer to such an imponderable question? All I do know is that after a few months of poor health ? I fell in the woods carrying birch sap and really put my back out, what could be better than to start sparkling again? So, meat of any sort is completely off the menu ? for now.
Of course, referring back to the quote from Susan Campbell, there is no doubt I can, as she says, ?subsist?. Yet subsistence carries the implications of just getting by, of the bare necessities, of surviving, being alive, but alive only to a paltry kind of mere existence. Perhaps for a month such an existence ? given no other commitments, could prove to be a liberating and nature-engaged escape from the day-to-day grind of work related toil. However, for me those commitments do exist (they?re not all toil fortunately). No, I want to live fully, to be nothing less than a whole man, to transcend the everyday, to feel the struggle of the impossible and know that it can be surpassed. A month of wild food will be hard. I will learn that I?m sure. However, to really rise to the challenge I must embrace the whole year and its generous seasons. Only then will I know if it is possible to live by wild food alone.
The coming month will be a preliminary study for a wild food year ? beginning later this year. I will be writing a daily blog about how things are going over the coming month. If you are interested please return to this page which I will be updating every day.
Now, time to go for an invigorating walk in the glorious lightening, thunder and rain??..