When it comes to hunting and gathering, most of us just end up in the supermarket. But Fergus Drennan takes it to the extreme.
He's "Fergus the Forager," a walking encyclopedia on local plant and animal life near his hometown of Canterbury, England, and he tries his best to live off the land.
"Even at an organic supermarket," he said, "the food comes wrapped and packaged, and that packaging is going to end up in landfill. The food has been transported from somewhere, adding to the pollution of the environment," he continued. "This way, you can eat with clear conscience and also have a lot of fun along the way."
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Drennan used to earn his living sourcing wild ingredients for some of London's fanciest restaurants. But he came to believe that ran counter to the basic principle of foraging. To him, the whole point is to sustain yourself through the resources that nature provides. So he quit the restaurant gig.
Now he runs seminars in the wild, teaching others to forage for themselves. He has a Web site and he's writing a cookbook to help others get started. Sound appetizing?
Before you answer, consider that Drennan takes this notion to the extreme. He's a vegetarian, but he also eats meat. His main source of protein?
No joke. Roadkill.
"I mostly find pheasants and rabbits and squirrels and hares and foxes and badgers and occasionally sea gulls," he said.
For the record, Drennan says squirrel tastes like a cross between lamb and the dark meat on a turkey. (Click here for his recipe for Pan Braised Squirrels). He says seagulls are delicious.
"I once made burgers for a friend," he said. "The guy said, 'Wow, Ferg, that's delicious! What kind of meat is that?' I told him, 'I'll give you 50 guesses.'" The friend never guessed it was a badger burger.
"The disappointing thing," said Drennan, "is that I expected a shock reaction. He just said, 'Wow. That tastes like real beef.'"
Drennan took the "Nightline" team on a forage, where we gathered a salad of seaweed, wild arugula, wild garlic, winter mushrooms, golden saxophrage and cuckoo flower, as well as a dessert of Japanese knockweed cooked in birch syrup.
The main course is, thankfully, not badger or squirrel. It's pheasant. Roadkill pheasant, of course.
Trying to put me at ease, Drennan held up the bird and reassured me that it had no tire treads on it.
"There's a misconception I eat things that have been peeled off the tarmac," he said. "You can see this is absolutely plump and perfect."
Why does Drennan eat roadkill? Because he needs protein but doesn't approve of animals being raised for the slaughter. "If the animal is already dead I'm not part of that system," he said. "I see it just as a resource like other things I find in the wild."
With that, he cut into the bird, and started preparing it for the fire we built along a little river in Kent.
Spend a little time with Fergus, and you get the sense he'd be a great guy to take along on a camping trip. If you had the stomach for it. He says a lot of scout troops have been contacting him. Perhaps they might one day offer a merit badge for roadkill.
I have to admit roadkill pheasant garnished with cuckoo flower is not bad. A little gamey, perhaps. But not bad. I have eaten pheasant before, and the bird was, of course, already dead. The big difference was in knowing that this bird died recently and randomly. And that was enough to make it hard to swallow. But swallow it I did, and so did the producer and crew working with me. (That was the deal when we set out to do the story.)
Fergus insists he's never gotten sick eating roadkill, though he does take a supplement for worms. The crew and I had no problems either, although none of us are converts quite yet.
It struck me, as we were cooking up our foraged fare, that I would have been perfectly comfortable with the same meal had I not seen all of the ingredients plucked and picked from the ground. There's something reassuring about the packaging and the presentation in a supermarket or at the butcher. And it also struck me that there's probably something bad about that. We should know where our food comes from, and perhaps if we did, we might eat more sustainably (not to mention more healthfully).
But one thing is certain: Fergus the Forager gave us plenty of food for thought.
This report originally aired on March 30, 2007