Hunt, gather, cook in Ashdown Forest

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Will Allen goes on a food adventure in the Sussex countryside.

We’ve not done so badly, us humans. We can have food, drinks, clothes and furniture, all sent right to our front door. We can have what we want, when we want and we don’t even need to leave the house.

But for many, this lifestyle of convenience and ease is becoming a burden. So it is not surprising that so many of us are looking to nature for solace.

With this in mind I embarked on a day of wild foraging courtesy of Hunt, Gather, Cook; the Sussex company dedicated to ‘re-wilding’ our lives.

HGC was created in 2011 by Nick Weston, a man on a mission to give us a mixture of ‘foraging, animal butchery, cooking and bushcraft with an emphasis in living comfortably in the great outdoors’.

After deciding that he no longer wanted to be living in London with no money he decided to try living self-sufficiently.

In 2009 Nick lived ‘off-grid’ for the best part of a year in a two-storey treehouse he built. It is the same treehouse that now provides the hub of Hunt, Gather, Cook.

Born in Ashdown Forest, Nick, 36, graduated from Newcastle University where he specialised in archaeology and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers.

A published author and journalist, he was recruited as survival advisor to desert-island reality show Shipwrecked, living in the South Pacific Cook Islands for three months.

On his return he worked in the events industry in London.

Disillusioned, he began to yearn for the outdoor lifestyle of his youth: “If I wanted a fruit pie my mother would send me out to pick berries and salads were filled with dandelion leaves from the garden.

“In adulthood I started to long for that way of life again, and when the recession hit, I saw an opportunity to reassess my whole way of life.”

When Nick introduces himself to the group he is immediately likeable and amiable teacher. Considering his lifestyle he is refreshingly un-preachy.

“I’m not an eco-warrior, but I knew I wanted to live a low-impact lifestyle that was sustainable and self-sufficient,” he says.

Nick takes our group of 12 to the top floor of the fabled tree-house and shows us the facilities – a hand wash area and composting toilet, and we’re given teas and coffees.

After a short safety briefing we get to work. Nick relishes getting people in contact with their food. As we dissect the deer carcass we’re told about each of the six species of deer and where they all came from, how it was shot and the techniques employed to ensure the cleanest possible kill.

He also tells us about people who forage and eat roadkill. I’ll paraphrase: don’t eat roadkill.

It is hands-on to say the least, but huge fun.

“I didn’t want this to be about survival,” says Nick. “I wanted it to be a pleasurable experience.”

By the end of the session we’re left with 20 burgers and several cuts of venison.

A lunch of venison carpaccio and our handmade burgers are served on the top-floor of the treehouse. It’s short but delicious work.

After lunch, Eliot Kett, 26-year-old plant expert, takes us for a stroll. It was while studying geography at Exeter University that he developed his expertise in foraging.

So much in our countryside is edible, yet it is quite a sobering lesson: there are many plants that can kill you.

Spying some familiar-looking greenery I squat like I imagine someone who knows what they are doing would, and prepare to pick.

“Parsley,” I shout excitedly.

But just before plucking Eliot gently interrupts.

“That’s Hemlock Water Dropwort,” he says, “the most poisonous plant in Britain.”

We return to camp having grazed our way through wood, field and marsh. Our final treat is a fire-making workshop.

We’re taught by Chop, the back-of-house chef on MasterChef. Like I said, lunch was good.

With a crack of flint on steel we send a spark into some dried fungus, then, after some huffing and puffing we see that spark grow in the handful of straw we cradle in our hands.

After feeding the tentative flame handfuls of twigs we each make a real, bona fide fire. No matches, no lighters,.

By the end of the day, with bellies full, we’re tired, coated in dirt and wood-smoke but, most importantly, we’re just that little bit wilder.

This first featured in the June edition of etc Magazine pick up your copy now.