Wylde Market, meeting the producers

Images above: Fresh caught sea bass and wild venison

Food fresh from the producers in Devon

Wylde Market set up recently in Chiswick, giving consumers the opportunity to buy fresh food direct from the producers rather than going through a succession of agents. They are members of our Club Card scheme and, as the name suggests, they deal in wild food – mainly fish and game.

As I was in Devon a few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to meet a couple of the producers – fisherman Ben and venison producer Hugh, to find out what the arrangement looked like from their end. Both were pleased to be able to connect directly with people enjoying their produce, and both make more money than they do if they have to sell to a chain.

Ben – Sea bass fisherman

Ben has recently moved back to Devon and bought a boat, having lived in Bristol for many years performing music live. His father was a fisherman in St Ives in what is now considered a golden era for the fishing industry, the 1970s.

Although he grew up with it and learned all about it from his father, initially Ben had not wanted to become a fisherman, so I asked him why now? When all we hear is that times are hard for fishermen, fish stocks are depleted, foreign industrial trawlers take fish from inshore waters and Brexit has made it all so much more complicated.

“My career as a musician rather evaporated during the Covid lockdowns and my wife and I wanted to get back to Devon. I found I missed the sea and wanted to get back in touch with that lifestyle.”

The lifestyle is not easy. He gets up in the early hours, leaving the house at 2am to get out to sea and find the fish before his competitors. Once he has landed his catch he gets on the phone to Nick at Wylde Market and then later in the day he drives to Exmouth to send the orders by courier by 6pm. It’s a long day.

He goes out in a 16ft open boat to fish the inshore waters off the South Devon coast, but is cagey about where he fishes and how he finds sea bass, because the competition is so tough. Sea bass are found in shallow, reefy ground.

“They are elusive creatures who move with the tide. One minute they are there, the next they are gone” he tells me.

Image above: Sea bass fisherman Ben with the lure he uses

“The difference in working with Wylde Market is making the fishing viable for me”

He works by himself, catching fish with a rod and line. “I love fishing for them, it’s active fishing, challenging, quite like sport fishing. It’s a lot of fun.”

Sometimes he can catch 15 or 20 fish but at other times he may come away with none. He uses the Japanese Ikejime method to disptach them, pushing a spike through the fish’s brain – better for the fish he says, which dies quickly, not thrashing around as it suffocates, and better eating, as the fish does not release lactic acid which causes the flesh to break down more quickly.

“It is dispatched within seconds and I cool it down in slush ice, so the meat is in beautiful condition” – sashimi grade, ie. good enough for sushi.

What with finding the fish on the sonar, keeping an eye on navigation and the weather, fishing and dispatching, there is not much down time.  We are used to Mediterranean fish, farmed to plate size, but the fish he lands are generally between one and three kilos and sell to consumer for around £45 per kilo.

The disadvantage of Wylde Market for him is that they are only open one day a week – Wednesdays – so if the weather is bad and he can’t go out, or he doesn’t find any fish on a Tuesday night, that’s it for another week. The rest of the week he sells to the local fish market, where the price is much less.

So does he like selling direct to consumers through Wylde Market online?

“It is so much better not being at the mercy of the market, who sells it on to a fish merchant, who sells to a fishmonger, who eventually sells to a restaurant or retailer. The fish reaches you much fresher, within 36 hours or so, and I get to keep 60% the sale instead of 30%. I would say the difference in working with Wylde Market is making the fishing viable for me.”

Images above: Hugh Bourne overlooking the moor where he lives; Red deer on the skyline

Hugh – Venison producer

I was not sure what to call Hugh when I him on Dartmoor. Deerstalker? Hunter? He prefers deer ‘manager’ as that is the essence of what he does. Having grown up in Hampshire, studied agriculture and gained a Master of Science in Wildlife Management, he took an opportunity to buy some land on Dartmoor and set up a deer park.

Not the sort you take small children to, to pet the animals, but the sort where the deer live unmolested in 60 acres, until that is he culls them, which keeps the herd healthy he says, with enough to eat for the remaining herd, and gives him the venison from which he makes his living.

It is a park, not a farm, because his management is not interventionist, except that he may put a little food down in winter.

Trained to identify healthy animals and spot signs of disease (he is himself a trainer for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation), he does his own butchery in a spotless cabin a short walk up a track from his house and sells the meat mainly to organic butchers.

Business has become much tougher in recent years – a combination of Brexit making exports much more difficult, he says, and Covid closing off avenues to sell to restaurants. The meat he sells to Wylde Market is not from his deer park but from the moors, mainly when farmers and landowners have invited him onto their land to keep the numbers down.

Image above: Deer manager Hugh Bourne

Are the British public ready to eat Bambi?

In some areas deer are beneficial, he tells me, but farmers largely regard them as a nuisance as the way they browse, stripping the bark from trees, affects the way the trees grow; they are competition for sheep and cattle, wanting the same lush grass, and they spoil arable crops by trampling them.

Deer have been invading suburban areas recently. “They quickly understand where they are safe” says Hugh. A little bit of woodland on the outskirts of a town is perfect.

“The general public still don’t really know about eating venison” Hugh tells me. “You don’t see venison advertised on TV. Are the British public ready to eat Bambi? Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

“There is a lack of coordinated management and marketing in this country.”

Somewhere along the way we fell out of the habit of eating venison. Our forebears would have had no compunction about eating it if they could get their hands on it. Waitrose and M&S sell venison now. It is good, lean meat, says Hugh, but he is unhappy about shooting deer unless he knows he has a market for it, and will not sell to game dealers.

“I would rather not shoot it than sell it to a game dealer. In order to manage deer well there needs to be a value. They need to be respected, so a reasonable and sustainable harvest is taken.”

Hugh, like Ben, finds dealing with Wylde Market much more satisfactory than selling to dealers – he earns three times more and knows the meat reaches the consumer fresh and is not wasted.

Image above: Hugh with his dogs

Wylde Market are members of The Chiswick Calendar’s Club Card scheme. The market opens each Wednesday from 7am until 7pm, with all deliveries made on Friday the same week. See the discount they offer to Club Card holders here: Wylde Market Club Card offer.

If you would like to buy fresh wild food direct from Wylde Market, have a look at their website to see what they have available on Wednsday mornings.