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Give the shops a miss for a change – go hunting and gathering for tea

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: July 21, 2012

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Buying local is now a key part of food shopping for many people. Some, however, are taking things even further foraging, hunting and catching their dinner, with almost no need for a visit to the shops at all. Philip Bowern looks at the concept of food for free.

When it comes to eating truly "local" food, how far can you go? A growing number of food lovers believe we have lost touch with the wild larder in our countryside that, even a couple of generations ago, provided useful sustenance through the year.

Nowadays the closest most people get to "wild food" is black-berrying, pulling in a few mackerel from the sea or picking field mushrooms for breakfast. But there are guidebooks, websites and a number of courses available that show those who want to get back to man's days as a hunter-gatherer just how to go about it.

There are, clearly, risks associated with eating what you find in the countryside. But some country-lovers believe those risks been over-stated to the point where many people are too nervous to learn out to foraging for their lunch.

One of the most highly regarded books on the subject is Richard Mabey's Food for Free which was first published in 1972. Writing the introduction to latest edition Mr Mabey says: "Foraging has become an acceptable family pastime again. Wild vegetable seeds are back on the market – in the case of some varieties, for the first time in three centuries. And in new wave restaurants throughout the countryside, samphire, bistort and oyster mushrooms are beginning to appear on menus.

"To the cynical the whole business still seems trivial and self-deluding, a fashionable pretence at primitivism. Yet more generously it could be seen as a natural outcome of the ecological concerns and longings of the last decade. The hundreds of letters sent to me by readers suggest not so much a misty nostalgia for the simple life, as a growing awareness of how food fits into the whole living scheme of things, and a deepening respect for the ingenuity of our ancestors. They suggest a very active readership, too."

Richard Mabey excluded wild game from his foraging menus and stick, in the main, to plants and shellfish. Yet several more recent exponents of the wild food experience have no such qualms about hunting for their dinner with rod and gun and sharp knife. It is certainly possible to construct an entire meal from foraged and hunted ingredients.

Here in the Westcountry in summer – even one as damp and uninspiring as this one – it is possible to put together a tasty menu from almost entirely "free" food. The exceptions might be oil to cook the dishes with, salt and pepper to season them and sugar to sweeten, and maybe some herbs and spices not available in the British countryside. Otherwise it is all on our doorstep.

So where to begin? Fishy first courses are always popular and several options, from wild-gathered mussels to netted prawns present themselves for a Westcountry wild food lover. But at this time of year, given a warm evening, a whippy little spinning rod and a line of feathered hooks it ought to be straightforward enough to catch a string or two or mackerel. A good spot in South Devon is from the beach at Beesands, a few miles off the A379 between Kingsbridge and Dartmouth. It is popular with serious fishermen too. Watch where they are catching and move in – but not too close. Scores of beaches, estuaries and even pier-ends in other parts of the region will be just as productive.

For a main course meat is hard to beat. Rabbit and pigeon can be shot year-round. Indeed, as agricultural pests that annually cost farmers millions of pounds, it is practically a public service to dispatch a few – providing, of course, you have permission from the landowner to shoot and the right certificate to use your chosen weapon.

Rabbits are best shot with a rifle – small bore .22 rifles with sound moderators are a popular option. If you can get a bit closer an air rifle fitted with telescopic sights is equally deadly and you don't need a firearms certificate, although strict safety checks and permission from the landowner are still a requirement.

A lot of feathered game is out of season at the moment but woodpigeons – of which some 10 million are estimated to live in the UK – are very much on the menu. Unless you can "stalk" them with an airgun as they sit in the trees, a shotgun is the best way to dispatch them as they fly in to eat the farmer's grain – but you'll need to be well-hidden and they can make for challenging shooting. A shotgun certificate, shooting insurance and the all-important landowner's permission are essential. Wild fruit particularly damsons, crab apples and blackberries can round off the meal.

To go with the mackerel there is marsh samphire – which sells for £24 a kilo in smart food markets but which can be collected for free if you know where to look. Early field mushrooms – perhaps even the delicious and meatily textured ceps, if you are lucky, would be perfect with the pigeon or the rabbit. And – to break the rules slightly – allow yourself some sugar with which to gently poach the gathered fruits in a little water.

Fergus Drennan, who made a television programme recently entitled The Roadkill Chef sticks to wild plants for the majority of his meals and doesn't eat any animals, either wild and hunted or farmed and slaughtered. He treats roadkill, however, as a "resource" and has a recipe for, among other things, fox stewed in red wine.

He has survived for a whole month on nothing but foraged plants but after reading his menu for one day, which started with a glass of sea buckthorn and apple juice followed by chestnut porridge and alexander root milk (which he described as "disgusting – big mistake!") you might not want to follow his menu plans.

However augmenting meals with a few wild ingredients that you have gathered yourself can be hugely satisfying and put you back in touch with nature. The weekly "shop" may never be the same again.

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