A woodland clearing near the Devon coast. A couple of Land Rovers pull up and everyone clambers out. We grab our bags and are about to set off down a track when British chef Mark Hix calls a halt. He has spotted some wild elderberries hanging from a tree nearby and is keen to harvest them right away. He pulls off a few umbels and lays them on his dashboard so he can take them back to his restaurant, The Oyster and Fish House, in Lyme Regis, and turn them into a sauce to go with game.
Snaking through the woods and up and down a gangplank, we emerge 10 minutes later onto an empty beach. Pebbles clatter beneath our boots. In the distance, densely covered cliffs taper down to the water. This is the perfect elemental backdrop for our evening of fun. First we need some driftwood, as River Cottage head chef and writer Gill Meller is making a fire. He knows this spot well; he comes here often, even on the coldest mornings, to “get away from the noise of life” and indulge his love for cooking outdoors. On Boxing Day you would have found him here frying up bacon and egg for sandwiches with his family.
As Meller coaxes a flame, another beloved English chef and writer, Valentine Warner, is seeing to drinks – some pretty lethal Negronis made using Hepple sloe and hawthorn gin, which he developed himself. No sooner are cocktails poured than he is onto the starters: home-cured trout on black treacle bread with glistening trails of elderflower-pickled cucumber. Meller’s contribution is next: grilled red mullet on fire-toasted baguette with ember-cooked corn on the cob. These are served on the leaves of some late-season sea kale, which is growing along the beach. To finish, Danish chef and author of the game cookbook Walk on the Wild Side Nikolaj Juel is mincing garlic, chopping chilli and grilling courgettes and scallops to tumble together on a chopping board.
Tucking into his second (or possibly third) cocktail is artist and adventurer Olly Williams, whose highly sought-after depictions of endangered species have been exhibited at the National History Museum. He and today’s brigade of chefs have been invited here by British wildlife guide and conservation expert Oliver Rampley to talk about a series of expeditions they are collaborating on from next year. Rampley runs Altana Europe, an Italian-based outfit that creates tailor-made experiences for people with a proper interest in wildlife. Working between Florence and London, Rampley spends his days leading clients on trips primarily around Italy and Spain, as well as Hungary, Norway and Canada – whether tracking wild boar in the wetlands of Maremma in Tuscany, observing crested porcupine in the Alps of the Moon in Umbria or going in search of the endangered Iberian lynx in the Guadalquivir river basin in Andalucía.
Rampley calls these latest expeditions Spots of Time. They take their name from a line in Wordsworth’s The Prelude, and are based on the idea that encounters with nature can have a profound effect on our consciousness and wellbeing. Each trip will last four or five days and welcome up to three guests; all will be led by Rampley and one of these collaborating chefs or Williams. Due to Covid-19, four of those planned for next year will take place in Scotland and one in the West Country (this will be co-hosted by Hix and focus on saltwater fishing). Trips for 2022 are planned in the Waterberg in South Africa, Italy and the Canadian Arctic, as well as Scotland.
While each Spot of Time will play off the speciality of its hosts – Warner is an experienced shooter; Juel an expert stalker – don’t expect yet another off-the-shelf hunting expedition with a cooking workshop. The emphasis is on providing clients with as rich and rounded a picture as possible. On top of wildlife observation and study (to teach how to find and identify species as well as understand their behaviour), clients will be exposed to issues of biodiversity and sustainability; wild food and foraging; hunting precepts; land management and fieldcraft, along with food culture from the point of view of the host chef. As Rampley puts it, “this is not lite”. The trip with Williams will draw on his specialism for capturing the spirit of animals in drawing, and is intended for those with an interest both in wildlife and how art is made.
These one-off expeditions reflect a growing trend in experiences that engage sustainably with communities and nature and offer a nuanced understanding of the world. On a Spot of Time journey, that comes with the opportunity to play with a few toys, including the highest-spec Swarosvki Optik spotting scopes, night-vision kit and other tools of modern conservation. Building on Rampley’s reputation for sourcing the most spectacular accommodation (Castello di Vicarello in Tuscany, Glenfeshie Lodge in Scotland and La Donaira in Andalucía are among his hospitality partners), guests next year will be housed in a category A-listed castle in south Scotland.
Today’s beach outing is an abridged preview of those trips, and a chance for me to meet the key players. We have also been eating, drinking and getting awfully merry, which Hix emphasises will be core to the experience. “We will have lots of fun,” he tells me, and I believe him; this is a man whose T-shirt reads “Wanna Cuttle?” For many, that may prove the biggest draw – the chance to spend time with one of the country’s leading chefs or artists; to see the world through their eyes and listen to their stories. Before working with Alastair Little and Jamie Oliver and at River Café, Juel was a guitarist who gigged with Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), Emmylou Harris and James Morrison. Williams has tracked lions in Namibia, swum with seals in Antarctica and sketched wild dogs in Tanzania. Hix has, well, been Mark Hix. You can count on hearing a few hair-raising tales.
Prepping and working alongside these chefs for hours each day also promises to make you a better cook, as you learn how to French-trim a rack of wild rabbit or prepare brunoise capers and shallots for a tartare of smoked red grouse. “You can go to restaurants with names above the door and spend as much as you can afford, but that’s nothing compared to working with a chef like this,” says Hix.
Each of these fellows wears his expertise lightly. But I can’t help but be awed by the knowledge and passion that emanate from them all so effortlessly. One thing leads to the next and suddenly you’re on a journey of discovery. For experienced foragers like Hix and Warner, for instance, treats are to be found everywhere. Elderberries. Sea kale. Nature dictates the menu. “If pigeons are landing on your gooseberries, they will probably go well together,” says Warner of how ingredients pair. “That’s what I find exciting – transferring what you see in nature to the plate.”
On the subject of deer, everyone has their say. In the UK there are six species, Warner tells me. Each one tastes different. So why are they all lumped together as venison? “A Chinese water deer runs like a goat,” Rampley points out. “A muntjac runs like a pig.” That’s something anyone would want to see. “The funny thing about roe deer,” Juel chimes in, “is you can watch them do the same thing every day. But if something disturbs them, they change pattern.”
Meller has his own story. It concerns a roe buck that Rampley had been tracking for years on an estate in Scotland. The animal was past its prime and had to be dispatched, a necessary part of countryside management and not something Rampley takes pleasure in. Afterwards, Meller took possession of the carcass. He boned, rolled and seasoned it, wrapped it in chard and beetroot leaves with damp hessian for extra protection, and cooked it for about three hours in an earth oven (a hole in the ground filled with heated stones). “It had a unique earthiness and was super-tender,” he says of the end result. Then he adds: “To take part of that animal and put it back into the same ground where it had been roaming for years felt almost ceremonial. Part cremation, part burial. It was a fitting end for that animal, a respectful way to cook it.” That feels like Spots of Time in a nutshell.
These trips are not for everyone. Prices are steep, starting at five digits. Guests are asked to hand in their watches and phones. And the long days in the field won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Warner talks about how sanitised modern eating has become and the need to “have a hand in our food”, in being prepared to gut a fish or skin a rabbit. “I do think,” says Rampley, “going through the process of cleaning and preparing an animal engenders a sense of responsibility and establishes a relationship.”
Rampley recalls a fishing trip he took last year with Hix and a fishing novice client to the Lofoten Islands in Norway. “She was precious about working with fish to start,” he says. “But when we docked the boat not only did Mark ask her to clean all the fish herself, she cleaned down the boat with a hose and carried the catch up the hill to the kitchen. People don’t get that experience if they go to a restaurant.” And the work was offset by extraordinary moments. “One morning she got up two hours before sunrise and we hiked over rocks to reach our spot,” says Rampley. “As the sun came up, we started to fish and within minutes she had caught a coley and pollack, both about 15lbs. I cleaned the pollack, cast the entrails onto the rocks and a sea-eagle flew up and took its share.
“It was incredible. Mark had bought some lemons, soy and Manzanilla sherry that they used to make a dressing for the sashimi. Then we ate right there on the rocks as the sun was still rising. Back at the lodge afterwards, the client described it as ‘ultra-visceral’ and like ‘briefly experiencing life in HD’.”
What was it that Wordsworth wrote? There are “spots of time/That with distinct pre-eminence retain/A renovating virtue”. Water-fresh sashimi, a Norwegian crag, a sunrise all to themselves – it more than fits the bill.
Spots of Time journeys from €10,500, altanaeurope.com
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