It was on a hot, humid Wednesday evening last summer that I was sitting at my Juliet balcony enjoying a nice cold beer and contemplating the possible prospects the approaching weekend had to offer after a heavy week of work. One thing I did know: I didn’t want to be in London.
Options were, on the whole, fairly slim. It was nearing the end of the month, cash flow was down to a minimum and most of my friends were all booked up. A trip to Sussex seemed the best plan to protect my dwindling earnings from the extortionate prices of our nation’s capital.
Meanwhile on the TV, Ray Mears was strutting his stuff in the wilds of Britain, building shelters, eating ants and making fire from sticks. This was nothing new to me (apart from eating ants) growing up in the middle of the forest, making camps and building fires were commonplace from an early age and I began to reminisce about those happy, carefree days when such things as rent and working for a living were a long way off in the distance.
Then it hit me, why not go down to the country and do just that a weekend in the woods surviving off the land (to a certain degree) and sleeping rough? To many of you this may sound absolutely ridiculous and more of a chore than a relaxing week in the country. But then why not escape the city and spend a couple of days in peace and tranquillity without police sirens, heavy traffic and people clogging the pavements like herded cattle? Why not indeed.
I have to admit I did not fancy taking on the woods myself, where’s the fun? So I called a good friend of mine, Chris and attempted to sell my idea of a perfect weekend. Chris had just finished Uni and had plenty of time on his hands. The two of us had plenty of camping under our belts after 3 months of it in Fiji and Australia during our gap year, and it was easy to sell my plan, as I was not the only one with limited cash resources.
So it was settled, two nights of Ray Mears challenges and a mini wild food odyssey. Luckily, I had the Friday off, as the life of a freelancer flits from ridiculous hours for days on end to a gentle trickle of the odd day here and until the vicious circle starts again.
Friday arrived and a wave of relief and excitement washed over me as I packed up all my necessary items for the journey ahead. There is a strange thing that happens when making the transition from the city to the middle of the woods. A mild case of disorientation and deafening silence of your immediate surroundings really is food for the soul and a better remedy for stress than I have ever known. We really had picked the perfect spot. This particular part of the countryside boasted a beautiful stretch of the River Ouse (the fish course), a selection of different trees from hazel and oak to birch and pine (the building materials and fuel for the fire), plenty of fresh wild greens including carpets of wild garlic coating the forest floor (the vegetarian course) and the odd pheasant call around us that indicated to a possible meat course. We had all the basic ingredients; it was know left to us to come up with the menu for a successful weekend.
After a quick scout of the area, we found the ideal spot to make our camp for the next few days. Our kit list for the expedition was relatively small and consisted of tools for the job and a few creature comforts. We had our pocket sheath knives, machetes, hatchet, bungees, cord, folding saw, leatherman, fishing gear, frying pan and candles. Food wise we took a quick trip to the local supermarket and came out with a packet of bacon, two large rump steaks, bread rolls, a bag of spinach, corn on the cob, three red onions, a pack of butter, salt & pepper. For our essential liquids: four large bottles of water, two bottles of red wine, a large bell jar of cripple cock cider (we are in the country after all) and a small bottle of whisky in case we got cold, of course!
Once we had staked our claim on our delightful patch of forest floor the first thing on the agenda was to build a fire place, which in any camp and for our ancestors was essentially the main focal point of a settlement. With the fire pit dug and our cunning method for supporting the pan: four Y-shaped sticks at either side of the pit and some freshly cut lengths of hazel rested on top, the next step was to build our shelters.
The abundance of hazel was a real godsend, there really is no better building material found in the forest and this versatile wood can be used for all manner of things, as you will see in due course. We both opted to build a half dome, rather like many of the tents on the market today. The key to building a shelter like this is to first lie on the floor and mark out how wide it should be so you can lie comfortably inside, then cut all the lengths of hazel you will need to build the frame. The next step is to sharpen five of the best lengths at one end, then bend all five pieces so they will not break once stuck in the ground and tied into place. The rest, as you can see from the pictures is fairly straightforward, the off cuts from all the hazel lengths were perfect for covering the shelters to make them “waterproof”, having said that the heat wave predicted for the weekend meant rain was unlikely.
Fish by Nightlines.
The one thing I was really looking forward to was the chance to base all our meals on the availability of what was on offer in our immediate surroundings. True we had got some food in the event that nature would manage to outwit us and leave our stomachs empty, but as they say chance favours the prepared mind, my fishing gear and the river being the most obvious of companions, I set about making an age old poaching device which allowed for maximum fishing potential with minimum effort on my behalf. The idea behind a nightline is very simple and in most cases extremely effective, as long as the water holds fish of some form. As I have fished this river on more than one occasion I know it holds a good head of eels, wild brown trout, perch, chub, gudgeon and of course top of the food chain and most fearsome of all, the pike. The three species that took my fancy from a culinary perspective were eel, trout and perch.
The nightline consists of a foot long peg of hazel, sharpened at one end and with three metres of strong fishing line (4-8lbs) tied to the other end, then I tied on a hook and two small bb fishing weights (shot). Once I had been through the arduous task of making six of these, remember the more you make the more chance you have of catching fish, I chose the most likely looking spots in which to set my cunning traps. Baited with a single worm (found whilst digging our fire pit) they were carefully dispatched into the river and left to perform. I set them mid afternoon and would wait till dusk to see if there was to be a fish course.
The rest afternoon was left to laze about in glorious lawlessness and do some ambient gathering of wild greens for supper. Wild garlic was an obvious contender as the smell of it had barely left my nostrils all afternoon due to its abundance. As well as this we gathered a load of young nettle tops, dandelion leaves, jack by the hedge, a handful of sorrel and some cow parsley. The last three were essentially for flavouring the fish I had not yet caught and the steaks we would almost certainly devour. There were also the skewers to be made for cooking the meat and hopefully, the fish? These were made again from thin strips of hazel. The best thing about them is there primitive, caveman appeal (its all in the thickness, about 5 times that of a bamboo skewer!). The only prep they required was to strip off the skin and sharpen one end, as they were freshly cut and still damp, we had no worries of them burning in the fire.
One of the tastiest things we tried was wrapping the cooked beef in wild garlic leaves, see below, this added some really fresh flavour to the perfectly cooked meat.
The best thing about campfire cooking is that it is basically a barbecue with one difference, fresh wood instead of charcoal. There isn’t a massive difference, but to me, barbecuing this way is way superior as opposed to charcoal. It could be the fact you’re cooking under a canopy of trees in the middle of nowhere and the food cooked over the fire has that wonderful wood smoke infusion which, ultimately means little or no seasoning/flavouring is needed. The flavour is all there.
The rump steaks were chopped into cubes, seasoned with a little salt and pepper, skewered and slow cooked over the smouldering fire, turning occasionally. The meat was without a doubt some of the best I have ever tasted, eaten straight of the skewer it had the most intense flavour and a nice juicy, rare centre cooked to absolute perfection. I am sure if you tried this yourself you will almost certainly agree!
At about 10.30pm after a few drinks and a few hands of poker, I felt it was time to see if the nightlines had delivered. After lifting two out with no success I began to question my confidence in this method. By the time I had lifted out all six I had flapping and squirming on the bank one brown trout of about a pound and a half and three very unhappy eels. Well, we weren’t going to go hungry tonight. One of the great pleasures of nightline fishing is the moment you begin to pull up the line and feel something kicking at the other end and have no idea what kind of fish you could be dealing with.
With the fish course imminent, the preparation for the fish was simple. The fire was fed and stoked up to a roaring inferno. The trout was gutted, skewered carefully, coated in butter and stuffed with sorrel, as a substitute for lemon, and wild garlic bulbs. The eels were a proved to be more of a tough customer to deal with. Trying to kill an eel and stop it moving is quite an effort. After a few blows to the head it is dead, but this single muscle of a creature doesn’t stop there. It still squirms whilst you are skinning it, gruesome I know, but quite something to behold in any case! Skinning involves a pair of pliers and slitting the eel’s skin all the way around its ‘neck’. Then I had to hammer my knife through its head into a log, grip the skin with my leatherman and slowly peel the skin off rather like removing a pair of tights, not that I know what this is like, but purely on assumption.
The eels were then chopped into bite size chunks and finally stopped moving. The best way to cook them is to gently fry them in a little butter in the pan. Add to this a little seasoning, lemon juice and some chopped wild garlic leaves. For the final flourish I added a bit of white wine, once slightly browned we took them off and ate them straight off the bone. The texture of an eel is very meaty and not dissimilar from monkfish, it also has a very faint fish flavour and combined with the other ingredients, tasted incredible.
The vegetarian course.
As a good accompliment to the fish I made a simple dish that tastes fantastic and is very good for you. A combination of stinging nettles, finely sliced red onion and chopped Jack by the hedge. An odd combination you may think, but trust me it really works.
Firstly, I added a bit more butter to the pan, which still had all the goodies leftover from the eels, a sort of quick fix fish stock. In went the onions, fried until soft, followed by the nettle tops and the chopped jack by the hedge. These were then left to wilt and stirred occasionally. The final flourish was a dash of red wine to finish. This dish we grazed on whilst eating our chunks of eel and skewered trout, simple and easy and a great course to finish on.
The rest of the weekend passed uneventfully, with a few attempts at trying make fire ray-style, something that, for now remains to evade me, but once mastered I can feel like the complete man! Also we added a back wall made in a traditional weave pattern and Chris attempted an A-frame shelter which allowed him to sleep up off the floor, good on paper but the lack of trees at either end meant it was doomed from the start.
Would I recommend this as a good mini break? Definitely. Provided you can get permission to camp and have a fire on a piece of land and make sure you leave nothing behind when you eventually feel a return to city life is necessary. Apart from being bitten to buggery by mosquitoes, I had one of the most relaxing, cheap weekends I could possibly have had and managed to knock up a fair few hours of fishing. Also, I gained plenty of experience cooking with wild produce and tasting which flavours complimented each other and the meat in question. The only thing I could have done with was a shower, but when living in the forest for a couple of nights the only cleanliness needed is when cooking. With the whole summer ahead of us I urge you to at least, on one weekend, forgo any monkey business you could get up to under the glow of the city lights and escape to the forest for a few days of peace and quiet. My only advice is to know what you are picking if you are after wild food, take extra supplies just in case and don’t forget mosquito repellent!
For equipment and tools for an expedition visit the Ray Mears website www.woodlore.com and shop online. Essential reading would be the SAS survival handbook, The art Bush craft by Ray Mears and the excellent Food for free by Richard Mabey. Also, A cook on the wild side by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is packed to the hilt with fresh ideas for wild produce.