Artilce reproduced by kind permission of Conde Nast Traveller Magazine
Fergus Drennan appeared from out of the mist at 7am on a cold October morning, bringing his beat-up old Volvo to a halt in Canterbury station car park. I opened the passenger door, but the passenger seat was already occupied, by a huge, nondescript lump of dried and yellowing fungus, shrivelled off-cuts of weedy green stalks and the soggy remains of an old newspaper.
'Just throw all that stuff in the back,' said Drennan as he shook my hand. He has reptilian-rough skin and fingernails blackened wilh mud. His old jumper is full of holes and the bottom four inches of his corduroy jeans are slained with water.
a handful of winter chanterelles
Drennan. a fidgety, enthusiastic, smiling 34-year-old, makes his living from foraging: hunting for wild food. He works alone, supplying two restaurants and a stall in Canterbury's Goods Shed food market, which he helps to run, eating what he does not sell.
The Goods Shed Market in Canterbury
He pulls a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and flattens it on the thigh of his left leg. It is today's hunting list. First stop: the woods.
Foraging is not a food movement. A movement needs a proper history, a reason for being, an impetus and a public figurehead, the more public the belter. Nouvelle cuisine had Femand Point; molecular gastronomy has Ferran Adria; slow food has Carlo Petrini; fast food has Ronald McDonald. Foraging has no one, yet.
For Drennan, it is a way of life. "The wfay we grow and gather our food, the kind of food we eat. and the way we eat it has much to do with our civilisation. The choices we make can bring about peace, understanding and respect, and can relieve suffering,' he says. In his early twenties he suffered from what he describes as mental illness. He believes that foraging saved him. Given that we were hunting along Kent 's narrow country lanes at 6Omph. I thought it best not to argue.
Besides, something much more interesting suddenly caught Drennan's attention, causing him to slop the car. 'Road kill.' he said, and jumped out to pick up a dead squirrel from the roadside. 'Fresh, and undamaged. Here, feel it: it's stitl warm.' My breakfast being still warm in my stomach. I declined. But I had to agree that it did look in reasonable shape, all things considered.
Drennan tossed it into the car. muttering something about squirrel fricassee, As a dedicated forager, he only eals animals which have met an accidental end.
As the last milky layers of mist were lifting we reached a small, densely wooded hill. The forest floor was thick with brambles that tugged at your boot laces. In the small clearings between the thorny patches, the ground was covered with liny green weeds. 'Wood sorrel and hairy bitter cress,' Drennan announced, holding aloft a freshly plucked specimen in either hand.
After scrabbling around the dank wooded ground for two hours, we had gathered two large baskets of sorrel and cress. With a going rate of £60 a kilo, our 200 grams equated to a salary of £3 an hour each, plus benefits (fresh air and the squirrel) and two very wet knees.
Kent is good foraging country. More agricultural than its neatly Irimmed neighbours Sussex and Surrey . Kent has no shortage of fertile farmland, scrubland, woodland and country lane to support edible life. As the mist gave way to sun, which in turn yielded to rain, we hurtled along Kent 's tangled network of stick-thin minor roads, trailed through its green and pleasant pastures on our hands and knees and took shelter under its gnarled and ancient woodland canopies. We found puffball mushrooms, wild chervil, spindle shank mushrooms, wild apples, chestnuts, nettles, walnuts, wild plums and one rather fine cep mushroom. It's the kind of food that would send the rank and file of the organic movement into a state of ecstasy in their local Fresh & Wild supermarket.
wild mushroom risotto at the George & Dragon
The forager's life is hard. Over a lunch of puffball in batter, wild-leaf salad and wild-apple-and-elderflower cordial in Drennan's parents' kitchen, he tells of his fights with the forestry commission to keep land open, his dreams of setting up therapeutic foraging workshops for the mentally ill and his struggle to raise enough money to move out from under the parental roof.
Drennan's conversation is scattered with phrases such as 'respecting and nurturing' the environment, 'fostering and facilitating awareness','halting the tide of destruction' and so on. But foraged food is as tasty as it is worthy. Because it is a cottage-industry activity, supply lines are short, local and fast. Food is most often picked and consumed on the same day. Even the best organic-farmed food is subject to processes - packaging, transport, storage and distribution - during which flavour deteriorates. For this reason foraged food is becoming popular with a small bui dedicated group of chefs, among them Max Leonard at the improbably quaint George & Dragon in Speldhurst, Kent, one of the oldesl pubs in Britain. He and the pub's proprietor Julian Leefe-Griffiths, are the main consumers an champions of Drennan's produce.
We arrive at the pub just before dinner, in time for Drennan to sell the entire day's haul at the kitchen door. Within half an hour we are seated in the smart dining room with our muddied trouser-legs slowly hardening and the threat of trenchfoot increasing, waiting to see what Leonard can do with our finds.
The results are delicious: crisp Parmesan puffball with tomato chutney: wild mushroom risotto with walnuts; saute of mushrooms with white wine and sorrel on toasted brioche: Kent marsh lamb chops with autumn vegetables and nettle aioli; and lemon posset with wild-plum jelly and wild-apple sorbet. 'There's a real integrity in cooking with wild food, plus flavours that you can't find in any other food, no matter how good it is,' says Leonard, chatting at our table between courses.
left: winter fruit crumble at the George & Dragon
right: wild plums
A fellow fanatic is Matt Tebbutl at The Foxhunter in Nantyderry. Wales . 'As well as making your menu look interesting,' says Tebbutl, 'wild food is good for the local community. And in a time of increasing food miles, it limits the separation between the supplier and the consumer.' After stints in London with Marco Pierre White at The Oak Room. Bruce Poole at Chez Bruce and Alistair Little at his eponymous restaurant, Tebbult now cooks at a former station house in his native Wales, using as much local wild produce as he can in his uncomplicated British/Italian cooking. Tebbutl's supplier is an elusive figure named Raoul, who - according to the chef - is a political refugee who has been hiding in the woods for several years. (When Raoul. a Flemish Belgian, is persuaded to talk to me on the phone, he leils the equally curious tale of discovering foraging in 1980 during a round of golf with Mr Kenwood of food- mixer fame.)
Chefs like Leonard and Tebbutt are few and far between. Drennan doesn't sell to London restaurants ('I used to. bul they just use wild food as a fashion statement, so I don't bother now'), and most provincial restaurants lack the clientele and the imagination to warrant the use of such ingredients. Besides, suppliers are thin on the ground. Despite the efforts of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingslall - the closest thing that British foragers have to a figurehead - our wild plants are relatively safe beyond the confines of the River Cottage garden.
left: the George & Dragon team, with chef Max Leonard and owner Julian Leefe-Gnffiths in the middle
right: picking hawthorn near Reculver
For Marcus Harrison, who runs a wild-food school in Cornwall , the fact that foraging is a minority sport is part of its attraction. 'Foraging lends to attract a maverick crowd, people who like to go back to nature and to be self-reliant. Wild foods are just not commercially viable, and that's one of the reasons they have not been cultivated. Foraging is a challenge, and only a crazy person would take it up as a commercial proposition.'
'Up to my knees in a particularly pungent dung heap on a Kentish farmyard, having jusl trodden on a third well-hidden puffball mushroom. I find that Harrison's words echo in my mind, particularly as Drennan swings from the branch of a nearby chestnut tree.
WILD ABOUT FOOD
? The Foxhunter.
?The Goods Shed,
? Wild Food School