Off Piste - Fat of the land, meat on the road

Taking a leaf out of the River Cottage cookbook and fermenting it, Chris Jones lauds the foraging lifestyle and encourages his own 'Generation Roadkill' to reconsider their place in the food chain

August 19, 2010

That Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has got my number. He knows I've got a bad case of middle-class, Guardian-reading angst about where my food comes from. He knows I fret over every piece of polystyrene and shrink-wrapped clingfilm I pull off my weekly shopping. He knows how hard I try to banish thoughts of the unspeakable cruelties visited on the animal into which I am trying to tuck heartily, perpetrated in the pursuit of higher profit margins for some bloated multinational corporation in the employ of Mammon.

Fearnley-Whittingstall knows that like many in my position, I naively pipe-dream of giving it all up to live in some remote rural idyll in a carbon-neutral tree house made of organic straw and locally sourced cow dung, built according to the traditional methods acquired over generations by indigenous fig farmers, while I live off kelp smoothies and spend my days knitting moccasins from sustainably harvested hazel twigs to barter for high-speed broadband access.

And he knows that, not having the courage to go ahead and live that crazy dream, I am prepared to pretend to myself that if I gather an ice-cream tub full of blackberries once in a while, this somehow redresses the damage I do by regularly driving a bootload of groceries away from Morrisons. He also knows that because of these anxieties and aspirations, he can sting me for a bunch of money.

It's fine for the double-barrelled nouveau hippy to parade the illusion of a life of self-sufficiency while propped up by the River Cottage franchise with its television series and glossy cookbooks cranked out relentlessly in time for the Christmas market. But how much of this middle-class lifestyle porn can a poor mortgage-enslaved, co-parenting academic, running to stand still in the research assessment exercise/research excellence framework cycle wheel like a gerbil in a cage, realistically hope to incorporate into his routine? And could it make any meaningful ethical difference to the way I dwell on the planet? When half a dozen supermarkets are competing to deliver food to my doorstep, is there any point to the forgotten arts of foraging?

Living near a university town that is essentially a small seaside village stuck in the wilds of the Scottish east coast can have its drawbacks. A train station would be nice, for instance. But then you would all be able to get here, and that might spoil it. But being slap-bang in the middle of nature's larder does have its compensations.

They say the best things in life are free, and learning at which hole in the hedge one may find them was certainly one of the unexpected pleasures of moving here after a lifetime of more or less urban existence. Certainly the pleasure of feeding yourself and your loved ones for nothing is immensely satisfying, but it is a long, rocky road from your first dandelion-leaf salad to a full-on spit-roast Bambifest, with many a hiccup along the way.

For instance - gentle reader - imagine my shock on a beautiful evening's foraging to realise that the best mushrooming forest in the neighbourhood is also the preferred venue for the local dogging community. (So I'll go no more a-mushrooming, so late into the night, though the heart be still as loving, and the mooning still as bright.) I bet that never happened at River bloody Cottage.

And I'd best gloss over the risks of intestinal worms (never ever google images of them - you won't sleep for weeks - the special-effects designer of Ridley Scott's Alien has nothing on those babies). And as for having to pull Lyme disease-ridden ticks from unspeakable places with a pair of tweezers ... well, I guess that's me crossed off North-East Fife's dinner-party circuit. Fearnley-Whittingstall has got a lot to answer for.

But let's not dwell on the dark, ugly side of hunting and gathering; allow me instead to extol its virtues and sing some of our successes. I say "our", because it is more of a communal than a solitary activity round our way. This is not so much because millennia of evolution have honed us into a super-efficient pack of hunter-gatherers perfectly adapted to our environment, with advanced cooperation skills ensuring our mutual survival, but because it is more fun - and because I needed my neighbour Lynne to show me how to find the wild gooseberry bush (not a euphemism).

So with several of my neighbours afflicted by the same ridiculous delusions of River Cottage grandeur as myself, we periodically find ourselves gathered for "village dinners" (these are, after all, local ingredients for local people), the aim of which is to make a meal together from treats found, grown, gathered, harvested or fished, but not, if possible, paid for. This can be a bit embarrassing if you have spent five hours at the beach only to come back with two mussels and a pocketful of winkles (again, not a euphemism). Fortunately, in those cases the pack provides for you. So there has been ice cream from the aforesaid gooseberry bush, soup from watercress and sorrel, lobster from Sally's pot (also not a euphemism), crab gumbo, wild mushroom risotto, sides of wilted nettles, wild cherry pie and, of course, wild garlic pesto.

All of this is yummy, but it is not really because "the eating is good", as Nigel Slater would say (yuk), that I have been bitten by the foraging bug. No. What I really love is the way it forces you to look, properly look, at what is immediately around you.

When trying to choose those elderflower heads that are at exactly the right stage of flowering to release a dainty floral flavour before they start shedding their obscene musk showers everywhere, you really see their icing-sugar constellations, in detail, as if for the first time. And you pay attention to the whole hedgerow in a way you have never done before, noticing a whole host of wildflowers, insects and birds that are all doing the same thing as you - living off the hedgerow. You discover that even a car-driving, holiday-taking, energy-guzzling wretch can experience a momentary feeling of belonging, of knowing one's place within an ecosystem, rather than feeling removed and detached from it.

What's more, because you are constantly watching for signs of change in your own habitat - the turn of a berry from red to black, the appearance of the first new shoots on your favourite wild salad leaf - you also become more aware of the turning of the seasons.

For some mysterious reason, while the passing of clock time is stressful and anxiety-inducing, the passing of seasonal time is deeply comforting. Foraging is about knowing one's place in space and time and being a part of the natural world, not apart from it.

I know, I know, I'm having a bit of a "moment", aren't I? Well, indulge me - I do specialise in poetry, after all. In fact, there are similarities in the appeal of both activities; the thrill of chancing on an undiscovered clutch of cep mushrooms, the very existence of which proves that no one else has spotted them, is very like the exhilaration of being the first person to turn up a document in the archive, or notice an allusion to another text - I have found something new! And in both cases that excitement very quickly turns to the joy of sharing your discovery with others.

In shared company is also the best way to enjoy one's home-brew discoveries, with which the "Village People" (see what I did there?) have had both successes and failures.

When, some years ago after taking a long, hard look at some of my older colleagues, I announced an extended period of teetotallism, appalled fellow villager Iain declared "the home-brew rule". According to this piece of village legislation, any liquid resulting from any vegetable or fruit forced into primary or secondary fermentation at home does not actually count as real alcohol, and is therefore acceptable for me to get whammied on.

Being a law-abiding citizen, this means I tend to go through a drinking cycle of extremes, lurching from periods of total abstention lasting six months or more to a single night of heavy consumption of eye-watering moonshine, the alcoholic content of which I can only guess at. So we have had rhubarb wine, made with rhubarb crowns salvaged from the old vegetable patch of the ruined bothy by the beach (obviously). That had a very crisp, floral nose, but was uncommonly painful behind the eyes in the hangover stage, so we made it only once.

There has also been cherry brandy (tasted like medicine), sloe gin (delicious, as you would expect), nettle wine (poured down the drain halfway through fermentation when it began to frighten the children), and a very popular, refreshing elderflower champagne that actually popped and fizzed in a most gratifying way when opened to celebrate a friend's birthday.

Again, it is not so much the results that captivate me, but the process. There is something mysterious and magical about yeast and the process of fermentation. Don't write in and tell me chemistry: I don't care. It still won't explain the wonder. How did someone ever discover this for the first time - encourage things to rot and eventually they will produce a sweet, sticky elixir of mood-altering powers?

I once stood with friends on a cliff for an hour, gingerly plucking the small flowers from between the long spiny thorns of a ferocious gorse bush, cursing every time my fingertips got pricked, wondering who it was that first thought this could be a profitable enterprise. And how did they know that after being fermented, racked off and bottled, the resulting sludge, if opened three months later, would taste like hoppy mud, yet if bottled for another three months would produce a rich, well-balanced amber wine, loaded with the memories and promise of an early summer's sunny day spent in the company of friends? It is sheer voodoo. I bet the ancient sages didn't fill out a form predicting the impact of their research.

From foraging it is just a small step to eating roadkill. Well, OK, a small leap of faith. For years I had driven my 10-minute commute to and from work on an open country road often littered with the carcasses of dead pheasants that had been too fat to fly out of the way of the traffic, and for which I would have paid top dollar at the farmers' market. I had wondered about stopping to pick them up, but, well ... you know ... roadkill - yuk!

But when I found out fellow villagers Peter and Sally were hauling deer into the back of their car (already dead, I hasten to add) and loading their freezer with self-butchered Bambiburgers, I thought that maybe it was time to get over my squeamishness.

Now you can tell when the pheasant is fresh, I promise you. Its body is plump, probably still warm, and the flesh bounces back when you give it a prod. If the pheasant is pancake-flat with multiple tyre marks on its face, or is already half-eaten by a fox, these are clues it might not be fresh.

Now you may be turning your nose up in disgust, shopping in your fancy Waitrose and Marks & Spencer foodhalls, you city-slicker, University College London academic, you (yes, I'm talking to you, Eric Langley). However, once the coalition government has finished with your pension scheme, I am pretty sure these are skills that in your retirement years you will wish you had acquired. And then I will be the well-fed old-timer laughing on the other side of your poverty-stricken face, so pay attention at the back!

If you like your pheasant well hung, string it up in the garden shed and give it a sniff every few days, but I find this a bit gratuitous to be honest. Then comes the much more sobering business of plucking and gutting. Reader, the first time I had my hand inside a dead creature, I confess I felt quite nauseous. Apart from its size, a bird's heart does not look, to the layperson at least, a lot different from pictures of a human heart. And it is in your hand. And you are removing it. The bird's last meal is a decaying, green slurry in its gizzard. I felt dizzy and faint and wasn't sure I could go through with it. And rightly so. This carcass was once a living thing, and if you are not affected by the thought of that, with your hand fully inserted in its body, I don't think you have any business eating meat at all.

We all know how intensively farmed animals are treated and what happens to them in abattoirs - or we ought to know if we are responsible consumers. Ethically, I cannot see the argument for not eating roadkill - unless it is that I am depriving some poor fox or crow of its supper. Strangely, my daughters are not repelled, but rather fascinated by all this. They are genuinely interested in how meat gets to the table, ask the questions we all ought to ask about supermarket meat as a result of these adventures, and help out with plucking the birds. They also shout enthusiastically from the back seat: "Daddy, swerve, swerve! Hit the pheasant!" whenever one bursts unexpectedly from the hedgerow ahead of our car.

Naturally, as a responsible adult, I patiently explain that the law forbids you from picking up your own roadkill, precisely in order to prevent the dangerous driving that could otherwise occur. However, I must confess I did stop to get one that bounced accidentally and dramatically off the bonnet - once I had looked in the mirror to check there was nothing coming behind. And I know they boast about it proudly at school. God knows what the teachers say about them in the staffroom after show-and-tell on a Monday. They are the feral kids who eat nettles and bits of meat off the road. And it's a nice Catholic school - the head teacher's an ex-nun and everything.

Of course, I will never be self-sufficient, or anywhere near it. I still have a hugely destructive impact on where I live. I am not Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. But I am learning a little better about how to be in the world, about my place and responsibilities in it. And so, it seems, are the girls. And that is more important than any silly, middle-class, Sunday-supplement lifestyle aspiration.

You know, I noticed recently there are a lot of grey squirrels round my way. Well, there are a lot of them at the moment, at any rate ...

NB: None of the names in this article has been changed to protect anyone's identity. They don't deserve it.

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