During the final gathering, "The Return", of the Old Way yearlong journey we asked the question: "How has this experience deepened your sense of what it means to be indigenous to your land?"
For me, I've noticed how much more adept I've become at quickly preparing food from the land for the table. I remember skinning my first animal, a squirrel, perhaps fifteen years ago: it took at least an hour and a half, with much squeamish grimacing and backache...and then which bits to eat? I've been through a lot of trial and error with rabbits, stoats (I used to ask the local trapper in New Zealand to leave them in my letter box!) and roadkill deer: slowly, slowly my skills have improved. Quite considerably over the last year.
A couple of weeks ago I acquired, by various means, two fat, intact squirrels: I had them both skinned and jointed, ready for the pan in fifteen minutes. Perhaps I can call myself a forager now?
In his book Affluence without Abundance, about the Kalahari people of the Nyae Nyae in Namibia, James Suzman discusses the idea that some foods are strong, while others are weak. The premise for a strong food is that it is either extremely abundant or extremely nutritious, or both. This has lead me to be curious as to what the strong foods have been in the diverse habitats and seasons we've experienced over the course of the Old Way year.
With so much species and habitat loss we find ourselves in a very different place to our hunter-fisher-gatherer forbears, so that now it is often the introduced, invasive species that we can look to when stocking our larders or feeding a tribe. The North American grey squirrel, was first introduced to Britain in 1876 to Henbury Park in Cheshire. Now it numbers about 5 million. It's success has caused the near demise of the native red squirrel, as well as a reduction in the population of the red squirrel's prime predator, the pine marten. According to Natasha Collins of the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project, "if you want reds, you have to kill greys".
So, I've bought a humane trap and squirrels are set to become a staple part of my diet.
Autumn squirrels are nutrient-dense AND they're delicious! In the woods where I live, they've been feasting on beech mast, acorns and chestnuts for weeks, so you can imagine their mild nutty flavour. Here's how I cook them:
Legs and loins of 2 squirrels
1/2 cup bone broth
1tsp fresh thyme
1 double handful of watercress or other seasonal green
Fry the mini joints in butter til golden brown.
Sprinkle fresh thyme over the meat
Add the bone broth and bring to gentle simmer.
Cover and simmer for about 15mins or until tender.
Add greens at the last minute.
Eat with your fingers, with a good friend in a wild place!
On the Old Way programme we have a strong ethos around the food we prepare. We try our best only to procure (whether from the land or local producers) food types that our pre-agricultural ancestors would have eaten, here in Northwest Europe. That rules out grains, nightshade and cucurbit families, dairy, sugar and all the delicious Indian spices we're so used to. We eat local (non-endangered) wild edible species of flora and fauna supplemented with nuts and root vegetables such as carrot and parsnip, whose ancestors grew wild here as ours did. At first this might seem very limited, but thanks to our incredible hearth team, we've eaten like, well hunter-gatherers (I was going to say kings!)
Amazingly, we've also managed to cater for four vegetarians this year, based on two strong foods. I'll leave you to figure out what they were.
The Old Way Yearlong exploration into hunter-gatherer lifeways, re-wilding and indigeny begins again in the Spring. Places are limited, so please apply early. www.theoldway.info/