My year living off the land
John Lewis-stempel soon discovers that catching your own supper isn’t as easy or as tasty as it sounds
ONCE, when the September sun was blinding, I walked around our farm in Herefordshire, doing the hard calculations you do when you raise sheep and cattle in high country and your Amex card is maxed.
A trout bulleted for cover in the brook, there were field mushrooms in the grass, the haws glistened like lipstick kisses against the blue sky over the Black Mountains. A pigeon coo-cooed across in Quarry Wood.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if one could live on what Nature provided for free? Wouldn’t it? I had read somewhere that a primitive hunter-gatherer needed 100 acres to support a family. Surely, I could support myself—with nothing bought, farmed, gardened—on 40 acres? Do the pure Paleo. It would be like living at Rules, the upscale London restaurant that specialises in game, the whole year round—or so I hoped.
October 1, the beginning of my year living wild. A hen pheasant slinks back and forth alongside the paddock hedge; she sees me and crouches down. I feed the .22 Weihrauch air rifle through the tangle of hawthorn trunks until the barrel end is by her eye, then pull the trigger. As she makes her dying flaps, I’m suddenly aware of the intense smell of tart autumn hedge fruits on the air.
I know this instantly: you’re never closer to Nature than when you’re trying to kill it or pick it, when your life depends on it. The pheasant, crammed with crab apples, is roasted in the Aga. Already ravenous, I fall upon the bird with the manners and appetite of Obelix.
Some supplies of food are even closer to hand than the pheasant. At the far end of the farmyard is a briar patch, home to a warren of rabbits, and wasteland in which shaggy ink-cap mushrooms, curiously akin to miniature Apollo rockets, proliferate. My version of convenience food.
For Keats, October was ‘the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. I’m not sure how he so wrongly conjoined mist and mellowness. The fruits of autumn, especially the rosehips, crab apples and the sloes on our two miles of hedges, need frost to finish and sweeten them. For days, there is fog upon fog. Nature is her own mistress. Another lesson learned.
In a desperate bid to appease my coffee-withdrawal symptoms, I spend an afternoon in House Meadow digging up Hell-rooted dandelions. You couldn’t call the roasted
‘Less persuaded by Nature’s larder, Penny and the two children stick with Waitrose
and ground roots ‘coffee’—a passable beverage, perhaps.
A typical, and laborious, autumn day in the life of a 21st-century hunter-gatherer: out of bed at 6am. A hot drink of dandelion coffee (or rosehip tea or elderberry cordial), plus a ‘muesli’ of ground hazelnuts and honey, then out shooting for a couple of hours.
In the afternoon, it’s picking, picking, picking the hedgerow harvest of elderberries, rosehips and sloes now they’ve finally consented to mature. More shooting, then plucking, bottling, stripping, boiling, skinning, de-pipping—until dinner at 7.30pm. Food preparation until 9pm.
The kitchen, full of my preserved foods in bottles, jars and boxes, could pass for a Dickensian chemist’s. Watching me paunch another rabbit, my wife declares: ‘There is no way you’re touching me with any part of your arm for the next week.’ Less persuaded by the glories of Nature’s larder, Penny and the two children have stuck with Waitrose.
Now is the winter of my discontent. My relationship with Nature has changed. Observational pleasure has all but gone. Late on a winter afternoon, I sit and watch the buzzard wheeling over Bank Field. I’m no longer a passive birder taking pleasure. He and I are rivals. He falls on a rabbit and I’m jealous.
There are Martian-red mornings, when I search the wasted, wintering hedges like a tramp through a bin. And I’m sick of eating rabbit. By my calculation, I’ve eaten 48 since October. I’ve had it roasted, grilled, kebabed, stewed; I’ve had rabbit in cider, I’ve had rabbit in elderberry wine. I’ve had rabbit for breakfast, brunch, lunch, high tea, dinner and supper. I’ve tried to disguise the taste with mushrooms, wild garlic, wild thyme, rosehips, crab-apple jelly and bramble jelly. Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit. Just the word makes me heave.
I may be thinner and often hungry, but I’m fitter. On a Christmas-holiday trip to Bristol Zoo, we chance upon an ‘Animal Olympics’ gadget that tests reflexes. Mine are as fast as a snake’s. My senses are differently tuned now. If I’m honest, I’m unnerved by this. I can see colours better,
‘I’m sick of eating rabbit. By my calculation, I’ve eaten 48 since October
I can hear shrews in the hedge from yards off and I can smell elements instead of compounds. There’s something else, something that I don’t have a name for: my head radars the landscape constantly and will detect game even though I can’t see it or hear it.
Ah, hubris. My ‘animal instinct’ doesn’t extend to fungi. For Boxing Day supper, I have duck-and-mushroom broth. The following day, I suffer from hallucinations and paralysis; I’ve mixed a toxic toadstool in with the chanterelles. The illness lasts for days, as does the rain. People wonder why I’m not wafer-thin. I have a guilty secret—i’ve made bottles of calorie-rich elderberry wine and crab-apple scrumpy. The thought of an evening without alcohol jitters me more than the idea of a day without food. Something has to rub the rough corner off this Stone Age life.
By February, I succumb to eating squirrel. As it lies dead at my feet, with the overbite of death, I remember why I’ve never eaten the animal before. The grey squirrel has the face of a rat. My prejudice aside, the meat, when cooked, has the delicacy of chicken.
There is more good news. For a fortnight, the weather is the best for February I can recall; at night, the temperature drops to –6˚C, frosting the landscape in enchantment, and I hunt rabbits in vast fields lit by moonlight, the only sounds the whispering of the brook and the satisfying ‘crack’ of the Weihrauch. By day, the sun shines hazily high in the sky and it’s warm enough for shirt sleeves rolled up. This is the life.
‘My head radars the landscape constantly and will detect game even if I can’t see it’
On this hill, far away, we are at least two weeks behind the standard botanical clock of England. Only now, in mid March, do the beds of nettles that band the pony paddock push up. There are enough for a meal of spring greens and for nettle beer. In the kitchen, as I brew up the nettles, Tristram, my son, says archly: ‘Has one of the dogs peed?’ He has a point. Nettles, whatever you do with them, smell of urea.
The greening of spring is ineluctable. Salad days are here again. Cow parsley lines the lane, there is comfrey (surprisingly rich in protein) around the duck pond, watercress in the paddock ditch, lady’s smock in Bog Field, ramsons on the brook’s bank and hairy bittercress, the poor man’s ‘roquette’, in the pig field.
Under all the hedges, garlic mustard stands ramrod straight. About garlic mustard, Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal of 1653 advised: ‘Reader, just try a little in your next salad.’ Rightly so. Salad, truth be told, is my favourite foodstuff. I could eat it all day. And pretty much do.
‘The greening of spring is ineluctable. Salad days are here again
How green is my valley? Utterly and gorgeously green. Greenest of all are the new leaves of the oak, to be turned into a light white wine (ratio of leaves to water 1:1), and under which I sit in paternal guard as my mermaid daughter swims in the brook. The May air is thick with the perfume of cut hay.
Eventually, even the aquatic Freda tires of swimming and we walk back to the house. Her Saxon hair is flattened wet to her head. She asks me to stop shooting the rabbits on the yard: ‘They’re only baby ones playing.’ Who wants to ruin an unutterably perfect evening? Not me. ‘Okay’, I reply.
Summertime and the wild living starts easy. Methodically, I pot the wood pigeons that land on the dead elm in Bank Field. In between, I read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. Elderflowers scent the summer air; they taste as sweet as they smell, an English snacking delight.
To date, the edges of the farm have been my main larder, but the joy of June is the amount of food the fields provide. There are nettles, sorrel, good king henry, plantain, red clover, wild thyme and yarrow. Best of all, there are pignuts, a true delicacy in the wild-food larder, with a taste that hovers between sweet coconut and
parsnip. They grow, with their fragile umbelliferous heads gawking over the grass at bottom of Bank Field, where I protect them from the cows by an electric fence.
In The Tempest, Caliban used his nails to dig up pignut tuber, which lies at the end of a long delicate root; in the hard, red clay of Bank Field on June 27, Penny and I use a trowel. I dig up one the size of a golfball. A birthday present for me from Nature.
As a fisherman I’ve always been the compleat tangler, but even I can catch the minnows in the brook. They turn out to be the whitebait of freshwater.
The bounty doesn’t last. In August, that awkward old month at the end of summer, the majority of plants are past their profuse youthful best and the fruits of autumn are indigestibly immature.
There is less of me than there was. In the bathroom mirror, I look like a portrait by Lucian Freud. Welcome to really hard times. Snails go on the menu. Jackdaws, too. However, the dearth doesn’t last, because Nature in England provides for the faithful. In September, I actually achieve a reasonable approximation of a supper at Rules:
Hors d’oeuvres Field-mushroom soup or Cobnut pâté on fat-hen toast
Mains Wild duck with blackberry sauce or Trout with aniseed agaric-mushroom stuffing, served with roast silverweed chips, steamed sorrel and mashed burdock
Pudding Blackberry kissel A choice of elderflower cordial, sloe wine, dandelion wine or blackberry wine Dandelion coffee
Dawn on the last day of my wild-food year. A pheasant cok-coks down in the fields. This is where I came in. Nothing in cyclical, seasonal Nature has changed, but I have. I’m closer to Nature, closer to me. John Lewis-stempel’s book ‘The Wild Life: A Year of Living on Wild Food’ was published by Random House in 2010
‘ As a fisherman, I’ve always been the compleat tangler, but even I can catch the minnows in the brook’
Fieldwork: the author survived on the fruits of his 40-acre farm