grey squirrel in autumn

Wild & Well Festival review: eating rodents, mindfully

“The other great thing about nettles is that they contain stardust.”

About 25 minutes into her talk and foraged food demo, pro forager Liz Knight comes out with this peach of a line.

She surveys the small crowd that’s gathered to hear her. “Oh no! I had you up until now and now I’ve lost you!”

Liz was speaking at the first Wild & Well Festival, held in Bristol over the past few days. The festival offered up a programme of talks with titles such as ‘Mindful Masculinity’ and ‘Stress-Free Success’, with a similarly right-on food programme held in the grounds of Ashton Court, just outside the city centre.

There’s the context: now, about that stardust. Apparently, the spindly roots that nettles have are particularly good at absorbing boron, which is a substance produced by cosmic activity in space and then ends up in Earthling soil as gravity pulls it towards the Earth.

It is thought to have bone-strengthening and anti-inflammatory properties, among other benefits.

We’ve no reason to doubt you, Liz, and your talk (and speed-foraged sloe gin) was great.

Pick your own

Foraging was a theme on the food programme – you could go on foraging walks to find out which weeds were edible and which might be fatal. And Dave Hamilton – a food historian and foraging expert – gave a talk on ‘Caveman Cooking’ and demonstrated some techniques over an open fire.

Hearth at Wild & Well festival, Bristol

A rabbit is smoke cooked over the fire at Ashton Court

Also worth a mention was an emotional session with Living Alive, an events company based in northern Scotland. Living Alive’s mission is to nurture ‘awe’ in everyone they meet – and the session explored why feeling awe is good for our mental health and good for the human collective.

Hardcore carnivore

The most intense foodie hit came from Louise Gray’s talk, also held around the open fire at the Hearth venue at Ashton Court. Louise is a former environment correspondent for a national newspaper, and has written a book called The Ethical Carnivore. In it, she details the climate science that dictates that in order to slow climate change, the world must eat less meat.

So, for the purposes of her book, Louise pledged to only eat meat that she’d killed herself.

To accompany the talk, various freshly ‘retired’ animals were cooked on the fire. This included an incredible piece of venison (one of Ashton Court’s beautiful and numerous deer), marinated in red wine and salt overnight. It was so fresh the chef said he actually ate some raw.

Also cooked in the fire was a rabbit, shot on the Estate, and… a grey squirrel, chopped up and cooked on skewers.

To sample wild squirrel is to really question whether we could stomach hunter-gathering on our own. With a flavour mashup that brought to mind both strong lamb and gamey birds, and the consistency of greasy paté, it’s not something we’ll return to voluntarily.

But that’s not true of the Wild & Well Festival in general. If the festival becomes a regular thing round these parts, we’ll be there. Spending a weekend tucking into big questions – not to mention rodents on sticks – can only be good for the soul.

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