There is a Free Lunch

From wild spinach to roadkill, foraged foods are Fergus Drennan’s daily sustenance

By Giovanna Dunmall

Look at a field filled with flowers, and what do you see? A field filled with flowers. Ask Fergus Drennan to look at the same field and he will see his dinner, and several more meals besides.

The 35-year-old, who currently lives in Kent in South England, is a forager by profession and vocation. His hunter-gatherer instincts kicked in at the tender age of 6 or 7.

“With my mother, I regularly collected big bunches of dandelion leaves to feed our pet tortoise,” he says. So Fergus thought he would try them, too. “They were, quite literally, a bitter disappointment,” he recalls of his first taste of the humble and ubiquitous plant. “Both fascinating and disgusting in equal measure.”

This rude awakening did nothing to dampen Drennan’s passion for wild food. He spent his childhood collecting and sampling plants. Later, while studying at the University of Wales in Lampeter he spent a year living in a tent. Although he suffered from excruciatingly painful sciatica and protracted girlfriend trouble, he had “never lived more intensely or been happier”. He set up an ingenious tunnel system filled with expired nuts and muesli that attracted mice and, in turn, provided extra food for the owl who lived up the tree next door.

I became part of an unusually tight-looped ecosystem,” he says. “For myself, I obtained left over and wasted food from the student union restaurant, wild food from the countryside, heavily reduced organic fruit and vegetables from a nationwide supplier’s overflow shop, as well as conventional food from the town shops. I saved lots of money.” And he managed to study too.

Though he no longer resides in a tent, Drennan still lives by the same principles. He feeds himself with salads, condiments, pies, risottos and soups made with such seasonal, local delights as chickweed, nettle, alexanders (a coastal plant that has aromatic leaves and stems), wild spinach, sea beet, burdock root, wild garlic, morels, watercress, sea purslane, wild sorrel, chestnuts and samphire.

An affable man with a keen sense of irony and curiosity, Drennan is nevertheless on a mission. He likes the idea, coined by the granddaddy of UK green magazines The Ecologist, of “kicking the supermarket habit”. He rarely uses them, except when he visits their bathrooms. (On the odd occasion he shopped at one, he says he felt “self-loathing” at his own “hypocrisy”.) He sees them as places that bombard your senses with a “disorientating riot of colorful signs competing for your mind and attention”. It’s unlikely that they will stock the mouthwatering plants, mushrooms and salads mentioned above—and even less likely, unlaid eggs found in freshly roadkilled birds (“an unexpected treat,” says Drennan).

Though Drennan does not buy meat he will eat it if he finds the animal already dead.

“If I were to buy meat from a shop, one thing that would be very certain is that the animal would have suffered specifically for my consumption,” he says. “Personally, I would find that unacceptable.”

Animals that would otherwise just rot are a different story. Drennan has, in this way, sporadically eaten pheasant, rabbit, hare, duck, squirrel, owl, moorhen, coot, lapwing, seagull, hedgehog, wren and blackbird. His badger burgers and pan-braised squirrels have become legendary. And though he considers himself only an average cook, he says the “use of wild food in cooking can lift an average cook to the dizzy heights of chefly genius”. Conversely it can also result in “downright inedible culinary disasters.”

To make enough money to live, Drennan sells wild produce at a local farmer’s market in Canterbury and runs foraging courses all-year-round for small groups of four people. Before going out on his own, he and a business associate provided foraged food to top London restaurants Le Caprice, Fifteen, Morro and The Ivy. He soon realized that this was not for him.

“Picking to order was neither fun nor environmentally sustainable and required me to own a car,” he says. “Prior to that I had only been involved with small, local deliveries by bicycle.” Now, he says, his priorities are to feed himself, occasionally cook for family and friends, and then maybe sell to his local market. The courses he runs are the most sustainable thing he has done so far he says, since they teach people how to go out and forage for themselves. “People leave feeling energized,” he says.

For more info, check out Fergus's website.

See more articles from In Depth

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Really interesting - definitely food for thought!

I am both interested and repulsed by this article! Did this guy graduate from university? Doesn't he ever get sick after eating dead animals?

Such a well written article! The bit about roadkill is intriguing, to say the least...

What a saddo! I can't believe that this man actually finds girlfriends. Long live Sainsburys and M and S ready meals.

A truly alternative way of life, but I wonder if he has children (or any contacts with the real world at all...)

Boy, that's an eye opener! I thought these characters only existed in Tony Hancock sketches - not in real life... What a find!

A very interesting article about an admirable man. However, I would argue that one great advantage of supermarkets, or even the local corner shop, is that we don't have to spend most of our waking hours foraging. You could say that foraging is for squirrels, not human beings. He may gain enjoyment and fulfilment from that, but I am not sure that I would.

Post a comment

Shelf Help »
« The Redemptive Economy, Part III

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter