We continue to travel around, looking for safe stopping places. There are riots in some of the cities where people are breaking out of their quarantines, but the small towns are looking deserted. The larger petrol stations that are attached to supermarkets are guarded by the army, but some smaller ones in isolated villages are abandoned – it’s here we’ve been doing our raiding, and, to answer this month’s meme, living on travel sweets, crisps and twiglets when we can get them, and dandelions, nettles and berries when we can’t. Most authors of foraging manuals and wild food guides expected that they would be used by hobbyists with well-stocked larders. It’s very difficult to make anything tasty entirely from foraged food, but here’s my recipe for nettle soup, with some suggested replacements for increasingly hard-to-find ingredients.
Ash’s nettle soup
- Heat a little oil in a pan.
- Add a chopped onion and two cloves of garlic, and stir until softened.
- If you’re lucky enough to have potatoes, chop them up small so that they cook quickly, saving you fuel. Otherwise, stir in some flour or whatever thickening agent you’ve managed to acquire.
- Add the liquid slowly and bring to the boil, stirring as you go.
- Once the potatoes are soft, add about three handfuls of washed and roughly chopped nettles per person, and simmer for a minute or two just to ensure they’re well and truly de-stung.
- Use a hand-turned blender or masher to get the consistency as soup-like as possible.
- Season and serve.
Oil or fat. We brought plenty of cooking oil with us, but it’s getting very scarce in the places we raid. Some wild nuts and seeds are good sources, but the likelihood of finding a sufficient quantity to be able to press a decent supply is almost as slim as getting hold of a working oil press. The best bet for vegetarians is to find an abandoned cultivated rapeseed crop, while those able to hunt could make use of fatty waterfowl such as ducks and geese.
Onions and Garlic. If you can find wild onions or wild garlic (ramsons), they add a good flavour, but don’t make nearly such a solid base as cultivated varieties.
Thickening agent. With no potatoes or flour left, we add a little milk powder sometimes. The stems of Fireweed are supposed to contain a thickening agent, but it adds a bitter flavour and, to be honest, I’m not sure how it’s supposed to be extracted. This is the kind of thing it’s very difficult to replace without using cultivated crops.
Liquid. Most recipes suggest two cups of milk, cream or soya alternatives as well as a cup of water or stock, but unless you have access to a cow or a soya processing plant, you will probably be using water. Strain and boil it before adding it to the soup, especially if you have no water purification tablets.
Nettles. These, at least, are plentiful. Lest it needs saying, use thick rubber gloves to pick them! You can eat stalks, flowers etc., but the young top leaves before flowering are the tastiest and most nutritious part. Wash them well and try to get them from somewhere far enough from a road that they won’t be contaminated by traffic exhaust. They’ll lose their sting once immersed in boiling water.
Seasoning. I daresay there’ll come a time when we have to get to the coast and use sea water for salt, but for now we harvest salt and pepper from the hardy perennial vandalised fast food chain, which is in plentiful supply.
This soup is one of our few sources of vitamins, though at times it’s more like nettle tea than soup. After eight weeks on the road we’re sick and worn out, stick-figure cartoons of ourselves, all cheekbone and shoulder-blade. Last week, after two days exposed in a layby because Sue and I couldn’t drive for more than ten minutes before feeling dizzy, we needed a proper rest and had the most incredible urge to be inside a building again, even for a little while. And I had an idea.
While I’m sure that most people with money have barricaded themselves into their gated detached fortresses, it occurred to me that there are a reasonable number of luxury residences around the country guaranteed to be lying empty. I won’t give the exact location that we found, but it’s one of the smaller stately homes, preserved as a museum and restored to its 19th century condition, complete with period furniture and fittings. The good thing about listed buildings is that they don’t have double glazing – sash windows make for easy entry, and we guessed that if silent alarms were set off in some security centre, the staff wouldn’t be there, or would have more pressing issues to attend to. We were going to leave the museum area relatively untouched and just use the staff rooms, but it turned unseasonably cold that night, and the display rooms had fireplaces draughty enough that we reasoned they must be usable. I was afraid of our smoke being seen, but we decided, again, that nobody would really be looking. We had some charcoal left from the last garage we raided, and we collected dry wood from the grounds; then we discussed whether, under such circumstances, one should retire to the parlour or the drawing room for the evening.
Even after running from the police, siphoning petrol from cars and an intensive course in breaking and entering, the idea of crossing that red rope barrier and touching museum pieces provoked a thrill of transgression. Sarah’s laughter as she clattered copper pots and jumped onto antique beds convinced us we’d done the right thing. After all, these objects were built to last, and to combine beauty and functionality. There was something very right about putting them to good use after so long. We found that even the stove was still connected to a chimney, and we cooked our last two tins of baked beans on a Victorian range and ate them by candlelight, accompanied by blackcurrant squash in crystal wine glasses. Sarah was for stripping the rather unsettling life-size dummies that populated the place and dressing up, but Sue drew a line at this – the costumes were delicate items, and besides, it would be impractical. We might have to leave in a hurry.
In the light of the day, we explored the grounds and made an even better find than the house: a kitchen garden with a wide variety of tomatoes, courgettes, new potatoes and a surprisingly abundant number of beans, given its neglect over the past month. Fresh vegetables were a greater luxury than the embroidered bedspreads and silver cutlery, and after three days there we felt revived. We’d just decided to stay for the foreseeable future when we saw the fires, from the window, distant but ominous, and huge. The nearby town was burning, and a quick check of the functioning local socnets confirmed that people had broken out of one of the larger quarantines, and immediately gone about breaking into the others. It wouldn’t be long before they were scouring the suburbs for food and shelter.
In principle, we should have welcomed the escapees into the house, invited them to work the gardens with us and form a community. That’s what I would have suggested doing a month ago. But we didn’t know whether they’d be infectious, starving, desperate or violent, and we didn’t wait to find out. The last time we decided to trust our neighbours, it didn’t work out well for us. We harvested what would ripen and headed North, leaving the museum to its fate.