Bushcraft Cookery Courses | How Foraging For Yourself Gives You a New Perspective on Food
"In despair I dig up and eat a couple of wild garlic bulbs."
Words by Olly Davy | Photos by Daniel Wildey
I’m staring into the fire in a trance-like state brought on by lack of sleep. 14 pairs of eyes are locked on the pot bubbling over the blaze. It contains our breakfast of nettle tea. Dotted around the clearing are the shelters where we spent the night. Punishment? No, I’m a paying customer. This Christmas, as I wallow in the shadowlands between consciousness and food coma, it’s an experience I’ll remember.
These days you can’t move for survival shows: whether it’s Ray Mears conjuring canoes from birchbark or Bear Grylls cavorting with Barack Obama. Bushcraft, however, is not as easy as the professionals make it look. So, seeking a truer depiction, I booked a four-day course. I’d get cosy inside an animal carcass if required but I was more concerned with how I, a food lover used to instant gratification, would handle the lack of grub.
"Avoid using deodorant: a spray of Lynx may attract legions of near-naked women but it will also deter your dinner."
I drew inspiration from Gandhi. His longest hunger strike lasted 21 days. The format of the ‘Bushcraft Survival Challenge’—two days of foraging instruction, aided by a little supplementary food, followed by two days of eating only what I could find—should be a doddle in comparison.
Sussex. An unlikely location for a survival experience but an easy train ride from London. On a warm Friday evening in July I arrive at the course site: the 300-acre grounds of a private school. Leon Durbin, founder and chief instructor of Wildwood Bushcraft, leads us into the woods that will be our home for the long weekend. It’s a serene setting and, under the instruction of a man with ten years’ experience teaching in far wilder places, one where staying alive seems likely.
The first night, passed in a mouldering lean-to built by a previous participant, is rough. Although the challenge of missed or meagre meals seems obviously physical, the major battle, as with real survival situations, is fought in your head.
Leon explains: “Mental strength is the number one thing. People have been in desperate straits with very little chance of survival but had the determination to pull through."
After a morning mug of boiled leaves we turn to meatier matters, that is rabbit snaring, which is legal when you have permission from the land owner. Leon teaches us how to spot the areas of flattened grass that mark their runs and why it’s a good idea to avoid using deodorant: a spray of Lynx may attract legions of near-naked women but it will also deter your dinner.
Confident the traps are well placed we set off foraging. I’m cheered by the thought that plants can’t run. Without knowledge it’s easy to take the countryside for granted but Leon can read the landscape like a book and he reveals the wonders hidden in plain sight.
Back at the camp we have time to build our own shelters, one of the four basic necessities of survival, alongside water, fire and food. I gather logs for an A-frame and chop armfuls of bracken for waterproofing. It takes me three hours. It’s only once I finish grafting, on an almost empty stomach, that I realise how tired I am.
On Sunday morning it’s clear our desires have lost ambition. Yesterday there was talk of Domino’s pizza and pub roasts. Now unripe blackberries and meadowsweet tea provoke excitement. Morale soars when Leon produces a sack of trout. Sizzling on a stick over the fire the little fishes seem the pinnacle of extravagance.
With some energy restored we tackle the toughest job yet - fire by friction. On telly it goes like this: man uses bow drill, makes ember, blows on pile of smoking tinder, inferno erupts, man sits back happily. Not so in real life. After two hours I’m sweaty, frustrated and have nothing to show for my efforts except a charred spindle.
"Yesterday there was talk of Domino’s pizza and pub roasts. Now unripe blackberries and meadowsweet tea provoke excitement."
This thankless task marks a turning point. Eight of the group, who only booked a two-day taster, now leave. For the six of us remaining there will be no more supplementary food. With the snares empty we focus on foraging. My eyes scour the ground like I’ve dropped my wallet. That evening we dine on reedmace rhizomes (wrestled from a reeking bog) and pendulous sedge seeds fried with wild garlic.
A new shelter offers a better night’s sleep but I wake feeling weak. Walking along flat ground is like ascending and standing up too quickly; it leaves me dizzy. Leon puts what I’m feeling in context: “The human body can cope with less food than it’s used to. Fasting, even starvation, is not necessarily pleasant but it’s manageable."
There are three, increasingly severe, stages of starvation: first the body uses up glucose reserves, then it digests fat (lipolysis) and, finally, muscle (catabolysis). Thankfully we’ll make only a brief foray into the second stage. With no caffeine, sugar or alcohol for four days might I actually emerge feeling good?
While toiling under the sun gouging burdock roots from hard packed earth it seems unlikely. On the final morning I leap at the chance to try ‘hobo fishing’. I lie in wait among brambles and tree roots, straining my ears to catch activity in the shallow stream. No dice. In despair I dig up and eat a couple of wild garlic bulbs. As my mouth burns I curse my foolishness but still manage a laugh when fellow survivalist, Dave, reveals his own comfort eating - a live worm.
That afternoon I’m on the train home, tearing chunks from the steak slice clutched in my filthy hands while manicured commuters look on in disgust. I feel happy to have peeked into the enriching world of bushcraft and experienced, albeit briefly, the rewards of privation.
Now the holidays are here again and a frenzy of consumption is inevitable. Although the spoils of the virtual basket are unlikely to include anything I really need. My new year’s resolution, then? Log off, get back to the woods and challenge myself to discover more of nature’s vast potential.
Even if you manage the tricky business of trapping an animal, that's only half the battle. Here Daniel Wildey explains how to prepare a pigeon for the pot, and why butchering your own food is a different experience altogether.
I'm walking back from the dugout latrine a couple of hundred metres from our basecamp in the depths of the Cumbrian woodland, when I notice a kind of macabre washing line near the makeshift kitchen. 'Drip-drying' are the intact carcasses of thirteen pigeons.
The line wasn't there yesterday, and our bushcraft instructors from Cumbrian-based outfit Woodsmoke, haven't mentioned what's on tonight's menu... I put two and thirteen together and come up with backcountry butchery.
I've never hunted, never killed my own food, and never prepared something that looked so much like, well, an animal. But I've never been averse to these things.
Pigeons have a crop – part of the oesophagus where food is stored to be digested later – and my first task is to clear the crop of any snacks the pigeon might have been toting around. By massaging the upper part of its chest I'm supposed to push any morsels back up into the poor guy's throat.
The next step is my bushcraft rite of passage: pulling the bird's head off. At the tender age of 38 I become a man of the woods with a couple of simple twists. The maiming I'm OK with, but what is revealed beneath almost causes a gag. Small black pellets are overflowing from the flaccid entrance to the oesophagus and my childish apprehension leads to the thought that my pigeon is full of another animals' leavings.. My punters' idiocy lasts only a second before I realise I'm looking at undigested berries, and have simply failed to clear the crop.
Once the berries and sundry greenery are gingerly flicked off it's time to get inside. The 'rip and flip' begins with a thumb in the sphincter. The gory bits are discarded by one hand and in the other I'm left with the whole, unsullied breast, resting on its very own chopping board in the form of the bony breastplate.
"The 'rip and flip' begins with a thumb in the sphincter."
We're making individual pies on the campfire, so to cube the meat my knife gets a run out. Any feeling of desecrating a defenceless animal has been replaced by lipsmacking; the meat is a deep gamey red. The tip of my knife describes the chunks of meat while they're still safely attached to bone, and then with one sweep of the blade, the cubes hit the pan.
While the bird sizzles with some mushroom, onion and stock-of-the-woods (aka packet soup) I carry out the altogether less exhilarating task of making pastry. But how do you bake a pie on a campfire?
With nesting billy cans. I line the smaller can with pastry, ready to pop into the larger can, and put a few stones in the bottom of the larger one to create a space the whole way around my cooking pot.
The pie still burns, but only slightly. And the primal experience of its creation adds a flavour that no chef could replicate.