It amazes me how quickly one can go from standing on a crowded platform at Clapham Junction to wandering through Sussex countryside, armed with a 12-bore on the lookout for something for supper- it was exactly 1hr and 10 minutes to be precise.
I wouldn’t say it is the best time of year to be grubbing through the hedgerows with the hope of creating a meal solely upon what Mother Nature can provide, but there are, thankfully, a few signs that spring is slowly emerging from hibernation. Wondering about the woods, I noticed on the trees that the buds are slowly fattening up ready to burst and the wild garlic is peeking through the soil down by the river- finally winter is drawing to a close. In fact, according to the diary, British Summertime begins on the 29th March-just over a month away!
At the moment I am waiting to hear some good news (finger’s crossed) from a certain publishing company, so what I saw next I took for a good omen. On emerging from a patch of woodland I noticed a herd of deer sauntering across the field to meet me. In the thick of the herd, standing tall and proud was the Stag, not any ordinary stag mind, he was as white as snow and looked completely out of place amongst his band of merry wenches. I’m sure I’ve heard white stags are good luck… well, we will just have to wait and see.
In the next field, I wandered along tight up against the hedgerow, behind this was a thick wood of birch saplings. The wood is well known for it’s muntjac, who wander about is if they own the place, which (by law-though I don’t know if it applies to wildlife) they probably do, having been there for well over seven years without being jogged on…or shot. As usual they were in the wood minding their own business, so I stood and watched them for a bit, trying to work out whether you could take one down with a shotgun (humanely of course!). Whilst contemplating the nose-to-tail abilities of the humble Muntjac, an extremely foolish woodpigeon clapped its wings as it flew over the oak tree to my right. Up went the gun and down came the pigeon…meat course done.
For some time now I have been very selective with my shooting, I will not shoot anything that I am not prepared to eat. This also includes taking more than I need, so with a pigeon in the bag, most of the remaining edible creatures that came across my path were relatively safe-I even raised my gun to a woodcock only to realise the season was over.
Tracking down some wild greens was not so easy, I had to strike out for certain places I new would have some early spring greens, the river banks for wild garlic and stinging nettles from impenetrable tangles of brambles. Nettles are just coming through and in another month will be at their best, at no more than a few inches high a fair bit of gathering needs to be done as they wilt down to almost nothing. It is really just the nettle tops you want- packed full of formic acid, antihistamines and iron, it remains a mystery to me why they are not consumed more; they are clearly one of the wild superfoods. Reaching through brambles wearing a pair of marigolds will raise a few eyebrows from unsuspecting dog walkers…even in the country (they were bright pink- but when it comes to forager fashion, they are all the rage).
The remaining greens came from within 10 metres of the house: sorrel from the bank beside the road and florets of bittercress from the garden. I had hoped to find something in the way of carbohydrates, but sadly the burdock root is way passed its best. So all was set for the fully foraged meal…I say fully foraged, apart from the addition of a little butter, a potato, beef stock, some of last years elderberry wine and a little seasoning; it was.
I cant say I have ever heard of anyone enjoying plucking anything, yet I find the woodpigeon a joy- they are fairly small and their feathers virtually fall off. It is one of the few birds that can be dealt with easily and quickly, as long as you don’t have a load to do. Granted they don’t have a huge amount of meat for the hungry hunter-gatherer, by roasting them whole and not getting your fingers too dirty trying to extract every ounce of flesh, the remains are the start of a damn fine stock.
Once I had plucked, gutted and stuffed the pigeon with a knob of butter, and a few bulbs of wild garlic, it was placed in a pre-heated oven at 180C for 20-30 minutes of roasting. With smaller birds it is always best to roast them for half the cooking time breast side down to prevent the best part of the bird drying out.
The stinging nettles simply refused to stop giving the odd bite until they were in the pan (all they need is a good wash in a colander and then steamed in a closed saucepan with whatever water still adheres to them), once steamed for five minutes, add a little butter and some seasoning and cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring regularly.
What of the other greens? The rogue potato was destined for mash (ok, I used a little milk too…) with some finely chopped sorrel to be stirred in at the last minute. The bittercress was washed, and served as a peppery side salad with just a drizzle of olive oil.
Gravy or is that Jus?
With the pigeon ready and the greens 5 minutes off, it was time for one final flourish, the Gravy! I say gravy, it was really more of a Jus, but I find this word a little too pretentious for my liking- I am also English, not French, so to me its gravy. I had begun warming a little beef stock and elderberry wine in a saucepan, once I had deglazed the roasting tin, all the juices from my pigeon went in the saucepan and it was set on a furious, bubbling reduction ready for service.
Once plated up, I was fairly content with how I had put together my fully foraged meal and the fact that I had only used only a potato from the larder gave me great satisfaction. If I was living in the countryside, I would certainly try to eat like this at least once, perhaps 2-3 times a week- it certainly didn’t take up much of my time.
As mentioned in Marshall Sahlin’s “The Original Affluent Society”, during his studies into the Dobe Bushman way of life, he noted that they only did between 15-20 hours of work per week (7 days), but, whether hunting was considered recreation or work remains dubious! Perhaps a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is more practical for those who wish for more leisure time? Although with the amount of laws and by-laws in this country (and the fact its illegal to use the most basic of hunting equipment; the bow & arrow) would make this sort of existence a lot harder than it used to be.
Still, something worth thinking about...