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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tions by Philip Ban­nis­ter

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.

Au­tumn

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.

Win­ter

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’

Spring

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.

Sum­mer

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

Epi­logue

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

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