Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Book Review: The Wild Life: A Year of Living on Wild Food by John Lewis-Stempel

The Wild Life: John Lewis-Stempel
John Lewis-Stempel was motivated at first to save money, but really because of his natural curiosity and appreciation of the landscape of Herefordshire, to try and live solely off the plants foraged and animals hunted on his 40-acre farm.  The Wild Life is his diary of that adventurous year, and it's hard to put down once started.

I really liked reading this book, and I connected with John's desire to have a greater relationship with the land he lived on.  Month by month, he goes through not only what he eats, but how he finds it and prepares it, and he really conveys the sense of how getting food becomes an all-consuming full time job for him.

The best thing about the book is the recipes he gives for different dishes he tries - dandilion coffee, making elderflower wine and other alcohols using the natural yeasts in the air, and endless recipes for spicing up rabbit dishes.  You sympathise with the boredom of rabbit as the go-to meal, even though rabbit to my husband and I is a tasty treat we only cook once in a while!

A possible feast awaits!
There were some strange illogicalities in the book, which I couldn't really fault, as they were more differences of ethical and moral opinion between John and I and not 'bad writing' in any way.  His wife noted that he shouldn't use the freezer, since that wouldn't be very 'natural'.  Yet he uses a gun to hunt the wildlife on his farm, and all the modern conveniences of his kitchen such as an oven, stove, grill, forged steel knives, and pickling jars.

Harking back to any 'olden' way of living off the land is near impossible anyway, since he is confined to his farm and bound by hunting regulations - so he cannot hunt a deer for example, and he cannot fish in the stream that belongs to his neighbour, and he cannot shoot ducks out of season (and endangered species are right off the list of course).  Taking the freezer out of the equation was just an unnecessary challenge I thought.

I miss knowing the names of all
 the birds I see
It seemed a bit arbitrary how he chose his rules to live by, such as when his daughter asked him to stop killing the cute bunnies, he acquiesces, but when he shoots to kill he seems to revel in a couple extra rounds to the head of an animal.  He doesn't fish for the lingest time, because he is scared of his failure.  We also find out that he has been feeding the carcasses of the animals he kills to his dog, and is not boiling the bones for stock or anything.  And he always needs an alcoholic drink in the evening, of something, anything (there are lots of recipes for alcohol)!  Just a few of the things that made me raise my eyebrows.

Salmon berries - I miss picking them!
I enjoyed this book, and it opened up a new area of reading possibilities for me, learning about Britian's wild food and living off the land (and hedgerows).  I'm unfortunately not in the best position to try that, living in residential urban Oxford, but it's the knowledge that I crave, growing up in rural Canada where I knew all the names of the plant and animal species that I lived with in my childhood, thanks to my dad's knowledge from being a logger (lumberjack to you Brits) that spent/spends most of his time in the bush.

I'd rate this book 4 stars out of 5 and recommend it to anyone that wants to learn more about having a meal gathered solely from the back yard.

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