Fergus the forager
His taste for the wild began early: as a boy he enjoyed nettle soups and dandelion salads, while at University he feasted on snails. Now Fergus Drennan is a hunter-gatherer by profession.
WORDS BY LOUISE ELLIOTT
Shafts of autumn sunlight pierce the feathery branches of tall conifers and cast burnished reflections onto stands of sweet chestnut trees and silver birches. The stillness of the ancient woodland is broken only by the crunching of leaves and bracken as Fergus Drennan, basket and knife in hand, steals through the landscape, eyes peeled in search of his prey. This is The Blean in Kent . 11 square miles of mushroom-hunters' paradise, its acid soils and open canopy providing the perfect habitat for a range of edible fungi, particularly the winter chanterelle whose brown caps are camouflaged by the forest's thick, leafy carpet. "In November I lie awake dreaming of mushrooms. I just have to get out there and start the chase," he says. Such devotion is crucial when foraging is your way of life. For Fergus is no autumn amateur - he searches for wild food all year round, in snow blizzards, heavy rains, gale-force winds and blistering sunshine.
For five hours a day, six days a week, he earns his living exploring the woodlands, coastline, salt marshes, estuaries, rivers and common land that lie within a 15-mile radius of his home in Herne Bay , Kent - "gathering local? is intrinsic to the foraging ethos. In autumn, he also fills his baskets with chickweed (for salads or to steam like spinach), alexanders (a coastal plant of the umbellifer family that was cultivated by the Romans for its aromatic leaves and stems), nettles (which Fergus sometimes likes to eat raw), berries, sloes, chestnuts, walnuts and cob nuts. In winter, pickings are thinner but he still manages to bring home a healthy harvest of sea beet, sea purlsane (its oval, fleshy green leaves are great in salads), Jew's ear fungus (which hangs from decaying elder branches), rosehips, hairy bittercress (a weed with a sweet, mild peppery flavour), dandelion leaves and wild chervil. In early spring, wild garlic, sea kale, morels, watercress and hogweed shoots are among his finds, followed by elderflower, wild fennel, sea lettuce and samphire, In summer, the long, hot days are perfect for picking green walnuts, camomile, blackberries, wild fruit and sorrel. Fergus used to travel everywhere by bike but currently loads his finds into an old VW beetle until he can devise a better trailer system. "Cars and foraging don't really go together so I'm hoping to be back in the saddle soon," he says.
His interest in the natural world began early. As a boy he roamed the countryside armed with his favourite I Spy editions to identify butterflies, moths and plants. However, while most youngsters would very likely have stopped there, Fergus began studying natural history books to discover the culinary and medicinal uses of the plants he found growing in the wild, and he often sampled their flavours on his way. "I loved the process of finding and picking plants. I felt I had to get to grips with nature - to touch it, feel it, taste it," he remembers.
At the age of 11 he convinced his mother to prepare a soup with nettles from the garden and began adding handfuls of dandelion leaves to salads for family suppers. At university, while other students saved money by resorting to fast food, Fergus began foraging on a daily basis to feed himself and reduce expenditure, living in a canvas tent behind a dry-stone wall on the edge of the campus for two academic years. "I was at the University of Lampeter in Wales and the Pembrokeshire shoreline provided an abundance of coastal plants that I was able to harvest." At night he would hunt for snails by torchlight to cook and eat. Today he enjoys at least one meal a day from produce that he has foraged.
Fergus regrets the lack of tradition in this country for picking wild foods, unlike in France and Italy where it is almost a national pastime. Using the British names for plants, he feels, is an important way of making it clear that so many good things do grow naturally here, including 100 edible mushrooms. "Instead of porcini or cep we should use the old country name, penny bun," he says. And his eyes positively gleam as he reels off other varieties - horn of plenty, field blewitt, puffballs, amethyst deceivers (so-called because their deep purplish-lilac colour fades when dry), honey fungus... He always asks permission from landowners where possible and takes reference books with him to help identify mushrooms in particular, even though he can now recognise many by sight.
He makes a living but not a profit. For the past two years he has been selling his food at The Goods Shed organic market in Canterbury on Fridays where he used to run the vegetable stall. "I decided to display a selection of the syrups I had been making and a few wild mushrooms. Everything sold really well so that's when I made up my mind to be a full-time, professional forager. Sometimes it's an uphill struggle to
convince people to try something they have never heard of but I push the nutritional value [wild foods have staggeringly high vitamin and mineral contents] as hard as I can." And such is his passion for urging people to try his range of intriguing produce that he gives away everything on his stall for free at the market's Christmas and autumn fairs.
Fergus's foraged food is a much sought-after ingredient by notable eateries in the south-east, too, including The Goods Shed restaurant, The George & Dragon in Speldhurst and The Saint in Brighton . To both chefs and customers at his stall, he is more than happy to suggest the best way of cooking the plants to bring out their unique flavours. And he has good credentials for this - before going to university he completed a catering course at Thanet College and loves experimenting in the kitchen, rarely measuring anything.
Soups are his piece de resistance, and he has included everything from hairy bittercress to seaweed, which he says doesn't need any herbs or seasoning as its taste of the sea is so strong. He makes up batches of about 60 portions at a time so that he can always take one with him when he is out foraging. "When I'm not sure how to cook something I make soup from it first. It's the best way to test a plant's flavour."
He also does a fine line in drinks, preparing about 400 different bottles of juice and syrup every autumn. And this year he plans to make a totally wild Christmas pudding that will include his own cider, walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, dried apple pieces, hawthorn puree, dried wild cherries and bilberries - it will be a seriously labour-intensive process.
Apart from providing him with a living, foraging has eased the feelings of restlessness, depression and anxiety he suffered from as a teenager: "I felt a sense of dislocation before - I didn't know who I was or where I was going. Now I feel that I belong to the landscape and experiencing the natural cycle of the seasons so closely has given me a greater sense of purpose and meaning." He would like to set up a charity to help people with mental health problems by taking them out foraging, and is working on ways to find funding for this. "Foraging has such a beneficial effect on the mind - it draws you out of yourself and you have to identify with the outside world. It has great therapeutic benefits because it's so calming."
He also runs regular courses in which he passes on his foraging skills and spreads the word about what can be found for free: '"But I'm not interested in making money, I just want to cover my outgoings."
To forage all-year-round requires patience and perceptivity mixed with insatiable curiosity and boundless enthusiasm. "It's very exciting - a bit like a treasure-hunt. You have to put clues in the landscape together to track down your find," Fergus says. "You can't beat discovering a giant puffball, but a fantastic clump of sea beet comes a close second. There's a natural larder on everybody's doorstep just waiting to be discovered."
?For further information about foraging courses, contact Wild Man Wild Food 7; www.wildmanmldfood.com). The Goods Shed market is open every day except Monday 3).
Feast on foraged food
Follow the ground rules below, then try one of the simple recipes from Fergus.
? Always ask permission from landowners before foraging and keep to public rights of way.
? Know what you are picking - use reference books to identify.
? Never remove whole plants by the roots.
? Wash all plants thoroughly before eating.
Giant puffball mushroom in beer batter
Beat together chilled plain flour and a good chilled beer to a medium-thick batter, then season if desired.Cut a giant puffball into inch-long pieces, cover in batter and deep fry until golden brown. Serve with mayonnaise or tartare sauce with a wild salad.
Chop about 50 nettle tops (the first 3 pairs of leaves), 2 potatoes, 4 cloves of garlic. 1 large onion and 1 large leek, Dissolve a vegetable stock cube in a pint of milk and add the chopped vegetables. Boil for 15 minutes, adding