The Clearing is a vision of the future in the grounds of Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park

Workshop report

29 April 2017

The Clearing

Workshop 4 - Food Part One: Finding It

We began this workshop holding a four pack of Mars Bars (£1 from a Tesco Metro). We didn’t know where any of the ingredients came from, or what, even, the ingredients were. We didn’t how the ingredients got to the factory, how the packets were made, and where. We were completely ignorant of any of the processes it takes to make one chocolate bar.

And what if something were to happen to shipping? To the power supply? To the cows? Where would the electricity come from to refrigerate the milk? What food would still make it to Big Sainsburys? If one choclate bar is so difficult, what about the food system in general? What will we eat after the end of everything?

This workshop aimed to help people start preparing for this eventuality. It was split in two: the morning was a foraging walk, led by local grower and forager John Noble. The afternoon was a rabbit catching workshop, with our very own Tom James (me).

John began with an introduction to foraging. He talked about how, today, foraging is a trendy thing, but in the north-east mining town where he grew up, it was just something everyone did, to supplement what was going on the dinner table.

John introduced what you need for foraging, as follows:
- A good book. Richard Mabey’s Food for Free is a good place to start (coffee table edition in The Clearing’s library, but pocket book editions are available). A book is especially important for mushrooming: as John said, you can eat any mushroom you want, it’s just there’s some you can only eat once.
- You’ll also need a receptacle. A basket is better than a bag, as they can make mushrooms sweat. But a carrier bag is fine if you’re going to eat the produce straight away.
- A sharp knife. A kitchen knife is fine, but a folding knife is better, as you’ll want to minimise wounds in the future.
- Marigolds (or gauntlets, gardening gloves, anything to stop you getting stung).
- A stick to poke the bushes with.

With that, we set off.

We discovered the following:

1) Jack of the Hedge.
Tastes like wild garlic, but more bitter. John: ‘it only tastes bitter because we’re so used to everything being sweet.’

2) Wild Garlic.
John’s favourite all time foraged plant. Likes the woods, next to water (particularly streams and rivers). Not that much of it at Compton Verney, but where it grows well, you’ll smell it before you see it. John talked about the historical importance of Wild Garlic (or Ramsen, as it’s also known): in medieval times, towns and villages were identified by their location from patches of it (ie the third village past the Ramsen Wood). The world will get smaller. See Riddley Walker.

The question of how much to take came up. As defined by the 1978 Theft Act, it’s not technically illegal to take food from the countryside, as long as you’re not doing so for commercial gain. Morally, you have to think about other people, and the plant and the forest itself. The rule of thumb is: take only what you need.

3) Cleavers/Sticky Weed.
Can be used to bulk out a soup, in the same way you’d use potatoes.

4) Nettles.
Use the tops – they’re sweeter than the older, bitter leaves below. Rich in potassium, magnesium, vitamin C. Obviously they sting, so wear your marigolds now.

We walked along the pathways, 16 humans, one mobility scooter. We stood in the shade of the forest, by the lake, in amongst the nettles. We talked about getting your eye in, how difficult it is at first to tell species apart, but how it becomes second nature.

5) Hen bit.
As with a lot of things in the mint family, if it looks like mint, and smells like mint, they’re edible. Lovely mint taste. Originally fodder for chickens, hence the name.

6) Dead nettles.
These look like nettles, but have little white or blue flowers, and don’t sting you. One of the group, a guy called Tom, told everyone else that you could suck on the white flowers for a little bit of nectar. So we all tried, with mixed results.

8) Cow Parsley/Chevril
Be careful here. There are a few family members you don’t want to eat. Hemlock Water Dropwort, in particular. The key is the stem: it has to be hairy, and with a ridge or a groove running down it.

9) Hogweed.
​The final stop on the tour. Hogweed is dangerous, and if it touches your skin, can give you a bad burn, which decays the melatonin in your body (John showed us one of his burns, which swells up every summer in the sunshine). So wear gloves and approach with caution. Yet, in the middle of the plant, the new shoots coming up can be harvested, and treated exactly like asparagus tips.

Everyone got busy. Five Clearing points for BHS bag as historical reference.

We went back to The Clearing and had lunch. John cooked the Hogweed shoots up, and we marvelled at this nettle salad (both cooked over an open fire, 20 Clearing points). We all shared our food and sat around for probably a bit too long. It was great.

In the afternoon, it was time to catch some rabbits.

Why rabbit? If your child is sick, or you’re pregnant, you might need some protein with your veg. Rabbits are abundant, easy to find, and there’s no risk of them hurting you when you catch them (unlike deer or boar). And, crucially, all you need to catch them is a bit of wire.

Note: for this workshop, I used an electronic toy rabbit off Amazon, so as not to upset any vegetarians in attendance.

We began with the wire, and where you might find it: old scanners, kettles and toasters dumped by the side of the road. Old phone chargers in boxes in your attic. We skinned the cable, to get to the shiny copper inside.

We then separated the strands. This caused a lot of resistance, as people just wanted to twist them together as they were. But just doing this will give you a snare with lots of kinks, which won’t close seamlessly enough, and might get snagged. Plus it’s not like we’re going to have anything better to do in the long evenings of the future.

Then we spun them together, to get something thick and strong enough to hold the rabbit, but thin enough that he can’t break it. To spin, you could either go down the schoolyard platting route, or use a hand-powered drill, which was much more exciting. Though the work was fiddly, people sat around talking. It was meditative, enjoyable.

Once we had a piece of wire that was thick enough, we formed it into a noose.

We then made some pegs, to fasten our snares to the ground.

Now to find some rabbits.

In the wild, the best way to do this is to actually see them in the fields. You want scrubby, unkempt fields, perhaps with horses, gorse bushes or sheep. You’ll see the rabbits in the first few hours of daylight, or the last few hours of night.

You can’t just set your snare anywhere. Rabbits are creatures of habit, and run down the same paths (or runs) all the time. It’s here that you want to set your snare. If you see them in the field, you can walk up to them, and see which paths they bolt down towards their holes. If not, you’ll have to learn to see the flat lines of grass that end in the open, round dark holes of the gorse bushes. Just like foraging, this will seem difficult at first, but with practice you’ll see them a mile off.

At Compton Verney, there’s a lot of poo, but not many warrens or obvious runs. We finally found a warren beneath one of the yew trees. After a bit of searching, we found an obvious run out of a hole. Time to set the snare.

- Try to set it where the environment changes.
- Bash in the peg with a hammer.
- The snare needs to be fist high, so the rabbit can go through.
- Hold it it in place with some twigs with notches cut in the end.
- Voila.

We pushed our rabbit through the snare, to show what would happen. His ears aren’t anatomically correct, so he got caught in a funny way, but people got the idea.

We talked about what we were doing, and why we were doing it. We talked about how it felt to catch a rabbit. We shared stories of how we’d done it. How it had made us feel strange, and guilty.

We talked about strange this workshop was, to be learning these skills with full bellies, when they’re just curiosities, and Sainsbury’s is still full of chicken breasts and avocados and pre-washed salad bags.

We talked about the men on youtube who teach you all these survival skills, all dressed in camouflage jackets and wrap-around sunglasses, and how macho it all is, how selfish. We talked about whether we’d want to survive like that. We decided we wouldn’t.

Workshop over. Toy rabbit caught. We walked and trundled back to The Clearing, for another cup of tea.