For many of us, putting food on the table now means a trip to the supermarket. But just what is available to the modern hunter-gatherer? Adrian Dangar advises on how to live off the land, month by month
Modern takes on how to live off the land is often heavy on edible flowers and common weeds and light on fur, feather and fin. Adrian Dangar suggest a modern approach to hunter-gathering concerning food that is the main event of supper, in his month by month guide to living off the land.
From pigeon in March to wild garlic and asparagus in May and the very first August grouse, The Field has plenty of suitable recipe inspiration for every season and its harvest. Take a look through The Field’s recipe section. And for right now, you can’t do better than traditional roast grouse.
HOW TO LIVE OFF THE LAND
Two inspirational books stand out from my childhood: Ian Niall’s classic The Poachers Handbook and Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald’s It’s My Delight. Both offer valuable and timeless advice on how to live off the land, albeit not always on the right side of the law. The modern take on foraging, or hunter-gathering from the wild (call it what you will, but let’s avoid ‘poaching’ in a magazine of this calibre), is sometimes a bit heavy on edible flowers and common weeds and rather light on feather, fur and fin. My personal preamble through the seasons is chiefly concerned with food that is the main event rather than
extraneous ingredients that merely add flavour to established dishes.
TV presenter Ben Fogle has revealed a few rugged individuals living the hunter-gatherer’s dream in wild and glorious isolation; however, the modern exponent tends to enjoy a level of comfort that often includes keeping a few hens and growing vegetables – both enterprises can benefit hugely from spoils gathered beyond the garden gate. He or she will also usually have a dog, for most country people have owned, for at least part of their lives, a working dog of some description.
Although nearly all of what nature provides can now be deep frozen for consumption later, that is a poor and shallow substitute for enjoying food in season. The key factors to living successfully off the land are knowing where, when and how to reap the natural harvest month by month.
START OF THE YEAR
Far from being the lean month experienced by our forebears, January is now a time of plenty thanks to the huge increase in shooting and game preservation. There was once a time (and perhaps a return to those days no longer seems quite so far-fetched) when rural households were grateful for a brace of Christmas pheasants in the feather, but over the past 30 years their popularity as a present has fallen dramatically. However, the ubiquitous gamebird has never been easier to acquire for the table and although a roast pheasant with all the trimmings is as delicious as ever, the armed hunter-gatherer may find greater fulfilment through truly wild game such as woodcock, snipe and teal, the rewards of rough and ready shooting available at a fraction of the price of a driven day.
With the game season over, thoughts turn to windy, late-winter afternoons shooting woodpigeon as they flight into roost. Not only do pigeon provide superlative sport, it is often to be had for the asking, particularly when huge flocks are devastating surrounding fields of oilseed rape. Pigeon have the advantage of being quick and easy to pluck and there are few tastier dishes on a winter’s evening than whole, slow-cooked pigeon. Those that escape the casserole pot can be frozen down to feed call birds in Larsen traps once predator control commences in a few weeks’ time, for the best hunter-gatherers are also conservationists at heart.
The roe deer cull should be completed during late winter and early spring before evenings draw out and the burgeoning undergrowth makes detection of these crepuscular feeders almost impossible. Nothing should be wasted from such a beautiful animal, and in addition to the conventional shoulders, haunches, backstraps, fillets and liver there is meat to be cut away from the brisket, rib cage and neck that will provide a feast for your lurcher, terrier or gundog for weeks to come. Do not forget the bones, either; these can be roasted briefly with carrots, celery, onions and garlic before being left to simmer in a pot for hours on end to create a healthy bone broth. When the liquid is finally strained off, the mushy remnants provide a feast for hens about to crank up egg production with the onset of longer days and warmer weather.
WILD GARLIC AND ASPARAGUS
The dandelions and nettles that emerge in April do not pass my ‘main event’ test but wild garlic sails in on a following wind, largely thanks to the delicious jars of creamy, mottled-green pesto that my wife makes every spring. The recipe pages of glossy magazines are crammed with wild garlicky suggestions (before moving on to feature that other great seasonal delicacy, asparagus, in May) and with good reason, too, for the flowers and leaves of this British native can be put to a multitude of uses and are there to gather by the sackful if you know where to look.
With squirrel larders bare at the end of a long winter, spring is also a productive time of year to trap tree rats (most agricultural stores up and down the land stock live cage traps that are simple to set and use). But although there are connoisseurs who swear by it, for me squirrel is the wild meat equivalent of stinging nettles and dandelions.
May was once the most exciting month for hunter-gatherers living within reach of a colony of black-headed gulls, which return annually to nest at the same marsh and moorland sites. Their delicious eggs have bright-orange yolks and used to be a spring perk for upland gamekeepers. They are still a May-time treat in London clubs and restaurants (not the hunter-gatherer’s usual habitat but we must all leave our comfort zone occasionally). The collection of gulls’ eggs is now confined to a handful of sites where ‘eggers’ licensed and regulated by Natural England harvest the olive-and-black mottled prizes, currently being offered for sale online at an eye-watering £7.95 each. The poor-man’s (almost as delicious, in my view) equivalent is pheasant and duck eggs, which, as Vesey-Fitzgerald reminds us, can also be used to make a delicious custard.
The Editor recently lamented the demise of shooting young rooks or ‘branchers’ on or around 12 May, however, there is nothing to stop the sportsman taking his own harvest with a .22 air-rifle during the fleeting – blink and your chance will be gone for a year – timeframe between young rooks emerging from the nest and taking wing. I am delighted to reveal the traditional rook harvest is very much alive and kicking in High Leicestershire, where the Quorn Hunt holds an annual rook pie dinner from birds shot in its beautiful and diverse hunt coverts. “It’s very popular,” enthuses rook pie regular and Quorn MFH Joss Hanbury. “The difficulty is getting your first invitation but after that you’re on the list for life. I thoroughly enjoy it, although once a year is enough for me. The pie is jolly rich but several guests take some home for lunch the next day.”
Being chicken-pale and less dense, rabbit meat offers a conventional alternative to the dark flesh of a young rook and is the principal ingredient of a tasty pie. Rabbits can be pursued legally 365 days a year; often described as the bread and butter of the rough shot’s gamebag, there are almost as many ways of catching rabbits as recipes for eating them. Ferreting and long-netting are two of the most successful but are best practised during winter when the perfect three-quarter grown coney is in shorter supply. My favourite way has always been to lamp rabbits at night with a good lurcher, by which I mean a dog that rarely misses given a fair start and retrieves the quarry alive and to hand. I no longer own such a dog so instead stalk rabbits in early summer with a .22 rifle when young ones are abundant and the grass is sweet. This simple sport demands a surprisingly high level of fieldcraft and is usually welcomed by farmers grateful for help in controlling a costly and prolific pest.
Soon after young rooks have flown the nest the mayfly hatch on clean rivers and streams heralds the start of a three-week fishing bonanza so productive and easy that it is dubbed Duffer’s Fortnight, celebrated in our household by banquets of fresh trout and new potatoes from the garden. Mayfly emerge a bit later up here but their arrival coincides with the time to plant out sweetcorn seedlings, each one sustained by the nutrient-rich head and entrails of a trout buried in the soil beneath it. After 16 June, it’s also permissible to take salmon from a handful of rivers where runs are deemed prolific enough, but if you must (and I do) kill the occasional salmon or sea-trout, feed your dogs the oily skin to put a shine on their coats and boil up the head for your hens. There is a ford over the Yorkshire Esk where farmers once pitchforked running fish into the back of a horse-drawn cart and led them home for poultry food. Oh my, how times have changed.
If you know a stream inhabited by invasive signal crayfish the chances are that it will be disdained by trout and salmon, for the American immigrant flourishes in the slow, meandering brooks of southern England. I know several Midland streams that are stuffed with the sweet and succulent crustaceans, which can be caught by the basketful throughout summer in simple creel-styled traps baited with rabbit guts. This environmentally sound brand of hunter-gathering is subject to superfluous regulation (you need permission) but crayfish offer a free inland delicacy only equalled by lobsters on rocky coastlines.
When wandering the riverbank keep an eye open for pigeon squabs that are almost ready to fly the nest. The milk-fed youngsters are the most delicious, albeit politically incorrect, of all woodland treats. Victorian hunter-gatherers used to secure their delicacy by tethering the young bird to an adjacent branch to prevent it flying off prematurely.
Midsummer is a good time to dig up wild horseradish roots, which have an eye-watering aroma and provide a much sharper, earthier bite to homemade sauce than anything available from a supermarket. Horseradish leaves begin to poke through the ground in April and unfurl to resemble docks. Years of sparing cherished clumps of horseradish (even our greedy pigs disdain the bitter leaves) when destroying weeds in the orchard provides enough root to keep us in horseradish sauce for a year.
YOUNG AUGUST GROUSE AND BILBERRIES
A young August grouse cooked rare with breadcrumbs is an extravagance most foragers can only dream of, but the bilberries on which they feed can be gathered by the bucketful on the fringes of heather moorlands. The bucket fills a lot quicker if you use a special comb or scrabbler to facilitate harvesting of a bonanza that is also enjoyed by woodpigeon flighting up from the valleys below.
Bilberries are the precursor to a smorgasbord of berries, nuts and fruits that weigh down bramble thickets and fruit trees from August onwards. Blackberries, wild raspberries and plums will be ready ahead of properly autumnal goodies such as sloes, sweet chestnuts and walnuts; if you know the whereabouts of a walnut tree watch it carefully in autumn or risk losing the lot to squirrels.
On the fungi front, honey-hued chanterelles appear in woodland months before field mushrooms emerge to provide a perfect
post-hunting breakfast in autumn. For me, however, no autumn is complete without the taking of a hare, preferably shot cleanly with a .22 rifle on harvest-scented stubbles before they have been put to the plough. “Only shoot a hare if you are prepared to carry your quarry and take her home to eat,” is an instruction often issued at the start of a rough shoot. I am happy to lug the heavy burden all day long for the pleasure of the feast it will provide for up to eight guests. When gutting it, save a cupful of blood from the heart cavity (there will be no shortage) and add it back to the gruel along with a glass of two of the best port you can spare to put the finishing touches to jugged hare, a winter dish that deserves pride of place on the hunter-gatherer’s table.