Thursday, 4 February 2016

Long-Distance Foraging by Bicycle

Last summer, three complete strangers and I set off on an experiment. We wanted to see whether it would be possible to cycle the 3,500 miles from the north of England to the Mediterranean along the west coast of Europe. Oh, but I've missed the most important bit: We wanted to see whether we could do it on a budget of £1 a day (approximately US$1.50 or €1.40 at the time we set off). Obviously, £1 doesn't buy very much food and so we'd supplement our groceries by foraging and fishing.

The biggest problem we had was that only one of us had extensive foraging knowledge and he had to quit the ride after two weeks when his knee exploded. Another problem we had was that none of us knew much, or in fact anything, about fishing. Ever optimistic, we figured we'd pick up this knowledge as we progressed.

Originally I'd planned the journey to be entirely supported by foraged food and with a budget of zero. But then I did some research and the only similar bike ride I could find was a much shorter one – eight or nine days – by Vin Cox, a very keen and knowledgeable forager, who'd had to cheat after two days and buy a packet of biscuits and who gave up entirely after a week when some dodgy road-kill made him sick. So I decided, inexperienced as we were, we'd definitely need that one pound. And I was right.

That said, we did forage some really quite lovely stuff. As we were already into summer, many of the common leaves – the dandelion and nettles – were past their best, but the fruit was on its way. In Britain we found cherries, plums and wild strawberries. In France, this list was supplemented with blackberries, wild raspberries, grapes and pears. In addition to nectarines and peaches, Spain gave us so many apples we could have started a cider factory. And then there were the sweet, sweet figs. Loads of them. We ate so many that their rough, abrasive skins burnt our tongues and our digestive systems were tested to the limit, and occasionally beyond.

It wasn't all fruit. Other highlights included a delicious tea made from elderflower blossom, and the not-so-delicious wine I tried to make out of the same. It got tipped into the corner of a field that will remain forever barren. Other good stuff included ramsons (wild garlic), wild horseradish, huge bags of gorgeous marsh samphire and the ever-so-slightly gnarly but tangy sea purslane.

If our foraging was successful, our fishing wasn't. We ran a little competition to see who could catch the most. I came joint first and I only caught two fish, and I'm not entirely sure they weren't too small to legally keep. I would have put our small haul down to our lack of fishing knowledge but wherever others were fishing – people who knew what they were doing, with loads of expensive-looking equipment – they weren't catching anything either. Maybe there just aren't any fish left to catch.

Did we achieve our aim? We did. Just. It wasn't easy but we had a great time, trying to find new species – I had a copy of the classic Food For Free with me – and moving southwards through Europe with its ever-changing culinary offerings. If you ever fancy a cheap holiday, it's something to bear in mind, although I'd recommend a larger budget than £1. And I'd also recommend knowing more about foraging and fishing than we did. Much, much more.

I'd love to hear from anyone who has ever attempted anything remotely like this.

Dave strips a plum tree

A selection of seaweed

Fishing unsuccessfully in France