'You can sit beside an ant heap and munch away'

Lenny Antonelli discovers how to dine on a menu of red ants, nettles, fish and spruce tea in the heart of the Irish wilderness

Sunday Times, July 10, 2016 

 Nat

Nat

(Please note this is my original version of the article, not the edited final version that appeared in the paper.)

“I think you’re going to have to get your shoes and trousers off and get into the stream for a look,” Nathan Kingerlee said to me blankly. “We’re going to try to flush out the fish from wherever it’s hiding.”

I started laughing — then saw the look on his face. This was no joke. We were hiking into the mountains of Kerry, following the path of a twisting river into a deep gorge. Nathan was teaching me how to gather, catch and cook food in the Irish wilderness. This wasn’t the kind of foraging where you collect elderflower to make cordial in your kitchen. This was about surviving in the wild. 

All down the valley the gorse bushes were flowering bright yellow, while patches of oak, birch and hawthorn blossomed in the shadow of the mountains. Nathan had left seven fishing lines in the river the night before — just bits of fishing line fastened to a stick on the bank, with a worm left dangling in the water. This wasn’t about fishing for fun — this was about catching dinner. 

“I’ve got seven lines in, so seven chances,” Nathan whispered as we crept up to the riverbank. “If you just have one fishing rod then you’ve just got one chance of catching a fish.” He gave his first line a gentle tug —  and something pulled back.
 
“I doubt it’s a fish,” he said. He carefully followed the line with his hands, and a small brown trout emerged into the pool. Nathan pulled the fish out of the water and smacked its head off a rock. He asked me to check the next line.

“I don’t think there’s anything on it,” I said. I pulled the line in, but too hard, and as I did it snapped between two rocks. Another trout, a bigger one this time, swam out in into the river, fishing line and float trailing from its mouth. Then it disappeared under a rock, and my heart sunk. I’d lost the fish.

That was when Nathan asked me to get into the river and find the damn trout.

I stripped down and waded into the shallow river. An icy chill gripped my legs. The deep freeze shot up to my brain. I slowly moved through the still pool, trying to flush the fish out, but nothing moved. After a few minutes, I got out and dried off. I gave up on the fish. But Nathan didnn’t. 

“I’m going to come back tomorrow and see if I can find it,” he said. He wasn’t joking.

Finding enough food if you’re really lost in the wild takes a bloody single-mindedness, as well as intimate knowledge of the land. You can’t lose that fish. And if you do, you have to come back and find it. 

Nathan told me he grew up kayaking around the rocky inlets and islands of Kenmare Bay. He got a summer job with a watersports centre, learned sailing, mountaineering and rock climbing, and became an outdoor instructor. Spending all this time outside, he got to know the land and water, and taught himself how to live off it. Even for his holidays, he told me of taking his young gamily hiking or canoeing across Kerry. Now, watching him in the wild is watching someone who sees more going on around him than I can possibly imagine. 

“From a survival point of view you’re having to think about so many things at the same time. You might be building a shelter, but you’re collecting tinder, you’re collecting firewood, keeping an eye out for edible plants,” he says. “You just have to be inventive.”

We had set out that morning on an isolated farm track by a mountain lake, passing damp stone-walled fields and ruined farmhouses (Nathan asked me not to reveal the exact location he uses for his bushcraft and survival courses). Our ultimate goal was to reach an oak wood deep in the gorge, where we would build a fire and cook our wild feast. 

Our first course of the day was fresh red ants. Nathan knelt down by a clump of mossy red earth and dug his bushcraft knife in. Then he held the knife to his face and sucked a single red ant from the blade. “The red guys are tasty but they sting. You don’t want them to dilly dally around your lips for too long.”

I followed suit, crushing an ant with my incisors. It was delicious and citrusy. “A little bit like a Starbust,” I offered. 

“In a survival situation, it’s a major deal to snare a rabbit or hunt a deer. But stuff like worms and ants are so easy to get,” he said. Ants are “good for protein, good for fat, and good for amino acids. You can sit yourself beside the ant heap like this and just munch away.” 

Nathan persuaded our photographer Sally to try one too. She let out a yelp as she popped one in her mouth — then seemed to relax and enjoy it. “Sour and sweet,” she said. 

After, we gathered fresh spruce tips to make tea. “These tender tips have got more Vitamin C than orange or lemon,” Nathan said. 

He showed us how to scrape hard sap from cracks in the tree, and called it nature’s chewing gum. It makes a great lozenge for sore throats, too. “And it’s glue as well,” he said. 

Next we picked nettles, and he showed us how to — in theory — pick and eat them without getting stung. It’s all about folding the leaf down from the top, so the stingers on the underside don’t get you. Always pick from higher up on the plant — a passing animal is less likely to have relieved itself here. 

“It’s kind of one of the best super foods in the world, it’s full of iron,” he said. “Obviously there’s not really protein in this, but it’s amazing stuff. And you can make chord from the stems, say for fishing line.” 

Later, after we had left the fish behind in the river, we hiked up to the wood, which was sheltered by the high wall of the mountains. The day before, Nathan had spent three hours building a platform for a swamp fire, a type of campfire that’s elevated off the ground, making it ideal for lighting when the ground is wet or cold. 

He asked me to light some cotton wool with flint, but the spark didn’t take. I kept at it, but it just wouldn’t catch. Nathan took over and gave it one strike, and it lit instantly. But it was tough to keep the fire going as wind whipped through the woods and cold showers raced overhead. 

After very cold climates, a cold and wet temperate climate like Ireland’s is the second most difficult to survive in, he said. “You’re hot one minute, you’re cold the next. Lighting a fire is never a simple thing.”

Soon the fire was roaring, and it was time to cook. We boiled water and made spruce tea, then had a soup of fresh nettle leaves. I collected gorse flowers and hawthorn leaves, and we mixed them with dandelion leaves and bramble buds for a colourful salad. 

I gutted our little trout, stuffed it with sorrel and roasted it on a stick, just like a marshmallow. Nathan had also brought two big bream from a local fishmonger — in case we didn’t catch anything — so we wrapped those in sheets of sphagnum moss and steamed them on the fire. Both fish were delicious. Then we made an earthy coffee from dandelion roots. 

After our feast we packed up and started back towards civilisation, feeling well fed. Hiking out of the valley, Nathan told me the mistake I’d made when I lost the trout — I’d pulled the line in too hard, rather than follow it carefully down to where it was caught in the stream. It was a rookie mistake. But he was also quick to encourage me, and praise everything I’d done right during the day. 

Two days later I dropped him an email. I was curious to know if he’d gone back to find the fish, if only to end its misery. But I presumed he’d probably been too busy to bother. Then he emailed me back with just one line: 

“I found the trout and we had it for dinner that night.”

Nathan Kingerlee runs bushcraft and survival courses in Kerry, with a focus on wild food, shelter and fire. See www.outdoorsireland.ie. 

Our summer wild food menu

1. Fresh red ants, eaten raw, juicy & citrusy
2. Spruce needle tea
3. Nettle leaf soup
4. Salad of dandelion leaf, bramble bud, hawthorn bud & gorse flower (leaves are best when young and fresh) 
5. River trout, stuffed with two types of sorrel, roasted on a stick. Plus bream stuffed with sorrel and steamed in sphagnum moss.
6. Dandelion root coffee

Eat with the seasons — and stay safe

Autumn is just around the corner now, and offers a whole new wild food menu, with an abundance of fruits and nuts. Why not put some blackberries, crab apples and rowan berries in a small amount of water and cook over the campfire for a delicious stew-like jelly? Meanwhile hazelnuts can be eaten raw, while sweet chestnuts (not to be confused with horse chestnuts, which are toxic) can be roasted on the campfire too. 

But always rely on expert knowledge when eating wild food — have a detailed guidebook to hand, or better yet, go on a bushcraft or foraging course so you can learn what’s safe to eat and what’s not, and how to prepare it correctly. If in doubt, don’t eat it. Some species of mushroom can be deadly, so eating any fungus is best avoided unless you are an expert. The seeds of some common fruit species can also be poisonous if eaten raw, so make sure to read up on how to prepare them correctly. 

Want to sleep in the outdoors too, without compromising on comfort? Lenny Antonelli stayed at Killarney Glamping in a private meadow on the banks of the River Flesk, which has luxurious bell tents each protected with its own roof and equipped with a comfy double bed, stove, veranda, patio heater and kitchenette. The campsite also has its own fire-pit among the trees for sipping hot drinks and toasting marshmallows. See www.killarneyglamping.com for details.