He has become known as the king of the wilderness and now Ray Mears has brought out his first ever cookery book. Catherine Scott caught up with the bushcraft expert.
He may be best known for surviving in some of the world’s most inhospitable places, and passing on his bushcraft skills, but now Ray Mears can add food writer to his list of credentials. He has just published his first ever cookery book Wilderness Chef: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Outdoors, if somewhat reluctantly.
“People had been saying for years that I should do a cookery book but I never ever wanted to write one. But one Christmas my son gave me a blank book and asked me to fill it with recipes that I had collected during my travels over the years. I thought if I’m doing that I might as well put them in a book,” says Mears, whose son Kristian, 20, is currently studying for a PhD in chemistry.
And while Wilderness Chef will help keep you fed with something tasty and nutritious in the wilds, many of the recipes can be recreated in the back garden.
“I do love cooking, especially outdoors although I’m not bad in the kitchen,” says Mears. “I love the fact that if you only have a few ingredients you can still make a meal. This book is really for people who like cooking outdoors and with the current situation it is likely that more people will be camping and cooking outdoors.
“The secret lies in searching for good ingredients; ingredients that inspire culinary excellence and experimentation. Where possible these should be locally sourced and organic and reflect perfectly the landscape in which you find yourself. I have tried to incorporate recipes I have learnt from other cultures and people I have met over the years.”
He initially became interested in foraging for fungi as a young boy. “There are so many different types of fungi and they all have their own unique flavour. I like to encourage people to forage but there’s not much about foraging in this book – that would need an entire book of its own.”
Ray Mears grew up on the North Downs, where he fell in love with the countryside and its wildlife.
An only child he was happy in his own company and taught himself to track animals into the forest – not realising that he was paving the way to what would become a lifetime’s work.
It was his school judo teacher who fired his imagination and taught Mears how to challenge conventional wisdom and practices.
“‘You don’t need equipment, you need knowledge to survive in the wild,’ he would tell me.” “Maximum efficiency from minimum effort”, was another of his themes. These simple principles have been enshrined in Mears’s bushcraft philosophy, in both his writing and his teaching. “I must have been about eight or nine – that’s when it really started and since then it has been a study of a lifetime – you don’t realise it at the time but you never stop learning.”
In the 1980s he worked for Operation Raleigh and had wanted to join the Royal Marines, but his eyesight let him down and he ended up working in the City.
“I did try and work in London for a while but it just didn’t suit me.” It is hard to imagine Mears working in a smoked-filled office wearing a suit and tie. “It was a time when everyone was chain smoking all the time in the office – I swapped cigarette smoke for campfire smoke.”
Having never lost his passion for bushcraft, Mears decided he wanted to pass what he had learnt about the great outdoors to others.
“I love teaching people about nature. At that time there was really no such thing as bushcraft when I started out.”
He founded Woodlore, the School of Wilderness Bushcraft back in 1983 and has been teaching ever since, adapting his tuition to the needs of his students that has enabled him to teach not only civilian students but military ones, too.
The crux of what he does is to teach wilderness bushcraft as an encompassing study of nature that transcends mere cultural and linguistic differences – it is more a philosophy than just a set of skills.
“Bushcraft liberates and empowers,” says Mears. “It re-acquaints man with nature and his roots and provides an escape from the shackles of modern life. Bushcraft is about being practical and resourceful. Rather than teach 10 things, teach one which can be put to use in a wide variety of environments,” he says.
“I wanted to make survival accessible so that people went out and did it.”
Since those early days Mears has expanded his horizons, literally travelling the world many times over. He has won the friendship of many of the oldest surviving tribes and been privileged enough to accompany them while hunting, tracking, and searching for wild plants.
He has written 13 books on the subject and has had numerous television series, first appearing on our screens in 1994 presenting the BBC series Tracks and then, in 1997, Ray Mears’ World of Survival.
Despite all this he still shies away from the term ‘expert’. “You are never a survival expert,” he says. “If you regard yourself as an expert it implies that you have nothing left to earn which is nonsense. You can learn how to survive in certain situations but every set of circumstances is different.”
He is critical of many television survival programmes that glamorize the dangers.
“I find, for a lot of them, it is about the machismo of survival, it has become a game and not something real. They highlight the danger, rather than how to make the outdoors as safe as you can and how to react in certain situations. I want to encourage people to go and have an adventure, particular children and young people, I don’t want to put them off.”
Unlike some so-called survival instructors, Mears comes across as a reluctant celebrity, as if appearing on television is almost a necessary evil.
Despite being ‘king of the wilderness’, Mears says he has quite enjoyed lockdown with his second wife Ruth. (His first wife Rachel died of breast cancer in 2006).
“I’m quite good at getting on with my own company. My wife and I don’t need to go out – I’ve had the best partner for lockdown.”
Before the pandemic Mears had been filming in China, Finland and Australia. He is in the process of writing another book which comes out next year as does his programme on China.
“I’m happy to be home for a bit. But what I really want is to be outdoors teaching again and hopefully this month we will be able to do that again.”
Wilderness Chef: the Ultimate Guide to Cooking outdoors by Ray Mears is published by Bloomsbury Conway, £20. www.raymears.com