Gill Meller on the lost art of wild cooking

Illustration of chef Gill Meller foraging and wild cooking food over a campfire
The simple life: Gill Meller goes from chef to hunter-gatherer in the wild Credit: Artworks

Chef Gill Meller finds peace and freedom in foraging for ingredients in the forest like an ancient hunter-gatherer, then using them simply

When I was eight we moved from the town to a house in the countryside and I became much more aware of the environment.

One autumn day when I was nine or 10, my friend and I picked a couple of handfuls of field mushrooms. We climbed up an old beech tree and made a small fire in the hollow where the big limbs met the trunk.

We cooked the mushrooms, all smoky and blistered, and ate them 20 feet up with the village tiny in the distance. It was a perfect supper in a landscape I loved and still love today.

Cooking something I’ve found in the wild is for me one of the simplest and most natural ways to enjoy food. Foraging is timeless and whenever I get the chance I revel in it. For a few hours I can cast off the walls of convention and the tethers of time.

In our frenetic modern lifestyles, we forget we have this freedom. It takes a little time and effort to learn about wild food but, as with any craft, with practice you improve.

At one point we thrived on food from the wild landscapes that surrounded us

John Wright is one of the UK’s leading authorities on it. Working with him and reading his excellent books have helped me identify wild food with confidence. There is no substitute for getting out in the field and seeing what is about.

In a wood not far from my house, mushrooms grow from late summer to early winter. The footpaths are lined with elder, beech and oak, and the ground beneath the trees is so soft it deadens almost all sound.

The quiet is restorative, even if I do not return with a basket of mushrooms to eat. When I do, it feels right to treat them simply. One of my favourite ways is to have them on toast. I fry them in butter with parsley and garlic, salt and pepper.

At one point we were all hunter-gatherers and thrived on food from the wild landscapes that surrounded us: nuts and fruits from the woodlands; fish, seafood and seaweeds from the coastline; plants and herbs from hedgerows and riverbanks; and meat from forest and field.

The landscape provided us with the nourishment to develop strong, healthy family groups. So when I think of the perfect family meal, it is on a remote pebble beach in sight of the woods.

It would be mid-autumn, still warm but with a slight breeze. I’d cook some fish over a crackling fire with wild herbs and sea greens. I’d have a pot of rabbit and wild mushrooms simmering away and there would be a bowl of dark black blackberries and something rich to drink.

If you get the chance, have a go at gathering food straight from a hedgerow or the seashore. A simple walk may reward you with the basis of a wonderfully satisfying supper. And you will be able to see where your food is really from and maybe learn new things about the environment.

It might be something as simple as understanding tide patterns or learning to predict the weather to your advantage. Perhaps you have made a basket or taught yourself how to make the most of a campfire.

All these things are connected to a tradition and a way of life we can still enjoy and learn from.

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