Had Neil Armstrong reprioritised his voyage to the moon, swung his ship around, cruise controlled onto the set of the Waltons, peeled back the pinafore of the overly fertile leading lady and regretfully deported the resulting offspring to be raised in the North West of England, then I believe they named him David Butler.

As we were lead from this theoretical love child’s magnificent patchwork house, a hankering freed itself from my millennial restraints. I wanted this! David and family had set up an enviable camp, it was erratic, corners were left unsanded, nevertheless it was a statement that bit hard into this nook of Norfolk, leaving a very real impression on the idea of community. To the stunted eye, an eye that has never gazed on its own cobbled together den, the house was a pick-a-mix spare part jigsaw puzzle. But to the brazen eye, one that has hammered a nail and recycled a barn door for an escape hatch, it was finely iced. The house seemed to cherish an elasticity within its brick and mortar that was reactionary to the family’s needs, it’s walls seemingly willing to move if it happened to be the request of the day. The occupants were rightly and gloriously the master and commander of their environment. The ‘Jones” were welcome but not catered for, the idea of a compulsory ensuite never for a moment pondered, Davids clan were whole, not searching. Sharing their company but for a matter of minutes was a tonic, I’d happily fold myself into a box, mark myself up as a receiver and wallow away in a corner realigning my compass. Other than to probe, as fortunately was our task, it was hard to offer up a serving without fear it might taste a little incriminating, as in a world where a scattering of yellow faces can sufficiently convey your deepest and most meaningful, to stumble on an entire family unit that talks, crafts and entertains with a seeming effortlessness is thumbs up smiley face with tears. I lost track of how many children David had or which cranny of his parlour I craved the most, but the ease of his company and flow of his family was freeing.

Portrait Photograph of David Butler, roadkill | Pic-nik: A conversation of food

‘I’ve been a cameraman, a sound man, director for regional magazine programs and now I suppose if I have to identify myself I’m really just someone interested in ponds and natural swimming pools.’ David shepherded us from the house through the back garden to the acclaimed natural swimming pool and overhanging sun house/outhouse/office. ‘That’s my main thing (the pool) but apart from that, a big thing for us is food. We’ve got this odd habit that we don’t eat sugar and the other big odd habit is we eat roadkill.’ Mrs Walton stops rocking by her fireplace, ‘little David eats roadkill!?’ She can be excused as the idea of scavenging Great Britain’s roads like a frenzied Magpie sounds barbaric. The then act of hauling the mangled chow off the Tarmac before driving it home in an attempt to locate its limbs, skin and dissect is a harrowing slant on our pre-packed society. Undeterred by any seepage of repulse my face had leaked out, David pressed on and talked of his first outing, ‘Butchering sounds like such a dreadful word doesn’t it?! But as its such a beautiful animal I should be able to eat it, I should be able to work out how to do it. But I did make a dreadful mess out of it. I had a Black and Decker Workmate and sorta put it in the vice of that and hacksawed its head off… It was absolutely appalling…’ His arms flew in the air with a splutter, resolving after several seconds of flourishes to wipe clean his face. ‘Absolutely appalling, but eventually I just got into the understanding of how to take it apart with a knife’. As the glint in a hunters eye saddens in the instant of the kill before maturing to appreciation, the same experience fell over Davids’ face. That first scene of butchery had most determinedly moved David away from the resource of gadgetry, quickly steering him to the art of the blade. David had quickly learnt the true craft of butchery, thankfully leaving that blood-soaked scene behind him.

Portrait photograph of David Butler, roadkill leg of muntjac | Pic-nik: A conversation of food

‘Once we’ve done the skinning then usually that day or that evening we’ll have the liver because that’s beautiful when it’s fresh and it hasn’t got the bitterness. Sometimes you buy liver from the supermarket and it’s got this slightly bitter edge but if it’s fresh like from a roe deer or muntjac it’s a lovely texture and really lovely taste and the other thing we have, it’s a bit of a feast on the first night is the loin, so that’s the meat at the back, down the spine and that’s actually the best bit of meat. Sometimes if you pick up a deer that’s been all mangled up, quite often the back is in fine form, so you can just drag it to the side of the road pull the skin off and just strip that meat out very very quickly.’ It became apparent that eating roadkill wasn’t just a fad, it wasn’t a great story to relay at work or tweet about, David was absolutely sold on this readily available resource. ‘It is the best meat you can get. It’s free range, it’s had a fantastic life, it’s eaten mainly wild foods, blackberries, acorns, whatever and ethically it hasn’t even been killed. It’s been killed accidentally, it hasn’t been a premeditated killing.’ Stood alongside this seasoned adventurer the desire to lift from the car boot that ‘just in case’ umbrella and those occasional walking shoes and set to lining it with a sunset orange tarpaulin was tempting. Davids reasoning for eating roadkill was compelling and hard to find argument with. I nodded encouragement, as having found with natural storytellers the best thing to do is let them carry on. David didn’t need prompting and went headlong into an anecdote of a recent find. ‘Oh yeah there was one time that I was driving to work, I was late for work as it was, and I wasn’t appropriately dressed, I had sort of a nice shirt and shorts on, stuff like that, and I saw this really nice deer but it looked liked its head had been mashed up a bit and I just couldn’t deal with it there and then. It was near these woods, not far away and I decided to drag it off the road and into the woods and I thought well I’ll pick it up when I finish work, but as I was dragging it into the woods, I noticed back on the road a 4×4 driving suspiciously slowly past me and I reckon he’d spotted me pulling over and seeing this deer. So I thought, ok I’ve got to stash this deer somewhere else, so I let him go past and then I moved the deer again and got back in my car looked in my mirror and I could see again that he was suspiciously sort of hanging around about half a mile down the road. Anyway, I went to work and when I came back, it was about midnight, and I parked up in a little lay-by and went off into these woods. I was listening to Late Junction on Radio 3 about midnight or 11 o’ clock and they have all this weird sort of eclectic music from all over the world and I opened the door of the car, got out and searched through the undergrowth. I had this torch which was really sort of failing, this really pathetic torch, and I couldn’t find the deer and of course as I had stashed it further into the woods than I probably would have. It took me ages, I was staggering around with this tiny, tiny beam of light and then all of a sudden there was this… This… It was like something from a horror movie, there was this sound of ‘oooh ah ah ah, oooh ah ah ah…’ Sort of like… Er, and it was coming from my car radio and it was like travelling through the trees and it was only because I had left the doors open you know, so this sound was travelling and I’m in this woodland with this really haunting music going on and then… My beam happened upon the head of the deer and its eyes were popped out on stalks and it was just like the most terrifying experience. I’ve just been spooked by that imagery ever since because I was already really spooked because of this music going and then to discover it in the darkness…. It was a very nice deer, so was well worth the effort but it was like this is… This is for food! You get terrified for food sometimes.’ David had morphed into a Monty Python, his delivery and enthusiasm a worthy rival to John Cleese and the subject of Roadkill, was quite the blood sport, it had the drama, the tension, it had it all. ‘I had picked up a deer and was stashing it, and his intention was to snaffle it… But eh yeah the psychology of where one would stash a deer came into it so it is like being a hyena, some kind of savaging animal. But it’s great fun, it’s just really exciting. It’s the gather. I’d seen this and I couldn’t get it at the time, but I was excited I was thinking right I’ve got to get back home, drop these people off or whatever and then I’ve gotta get back there. But then the added twist at the end thinking actually it’s not there, a bit of a detective story trying to solve this … ‘if this situation had happened, what would I do in this situation’ and then low and behold I had actually solved it, much to the annoyance of that 4×4 driver.’

Portrait photograph of David Butler, still life | Pic-nik: A conversation of food

I’m in! If not purely for the fun and games as hide and seek was always a firm favourite as a child and since hair sprouted in encouraging places it has proved a hard game to slip into the everyday without looking like a serial delinquent. I shelved my excitement and pressed to understand, other than roadkill, what food stuff raised Mrs Walton’s John Cleese adventurer. ‘I’m more of a product of the 60s and 70s where then anything that was homemade was seen as inferior to anything brought from a supermarket. Thankfully that has all been turned on its head nowadays, but in those days my mother would just buy a Fry Bentos Steak and Kidney Pudding, erm, which came in a tin, and bung that it the oven along with peas and mash potato, which would actually be Smash, something ridiculous like that in those days.’ Beautiful, just as I had myself poised in a zen-like position waiting for the infusion of a hippy like childhood, David hits me with the truth of 70’s England. ‘So my diet was basically a lot of that highly processed foods and I think probably jelly and evaporated milk ‘Jelly and Evap’ for afters and erm which is basically coloured liquefied pigs trotters and sweetened condensed milk, which is probably not the best basis for a healthy growing child.’ You have to love what happened to food in Britain, we fundamentally for a decade lost any idea of fresh and in its place hailed convenient grub as literally the best thing alongside sliced bread. ‘We have this thing as a family we always had to eat around the table and it was a big social thing, and thankfully that’s what I always did, brother and sister all sat around a little Formica table in the kitchen of our little-terraced house in Liverpool eating our fry Bentos pies and jelly and ice cream.’ The idea of what was healthy and appropriate to eat was certainly skewed somewhat but what hadn’t escaped this country was the sense of family. Today we have thankfully resurrected food standards but the dynamic around the kitchen table for all our efforts is not the immediate go to it once was. It is now a question, ‘should we eat around the table?’ Not in Mr Butlers household, from our brief time in his company everything was around the table. David and gang had hand picked from their experience what worked, what works and clearly cobbled them together in a very coherent and natural setting. Gone is the convenience and in its place, plenty of vegetables, scavenged meat and the odd sausage from a butcher. ‘I feel fortunate now to have a bit more understanding about food and more understanding than my mum. My mum still cooks the same stuff, but I’ve moved on.’ And that’s the point, as a race we must move on, we must take the good, shy away from the bad and for Pic-nik there was an enormous amount to steal at Davids place.

Portrait photograph of David Butler, | Pic-nik: A conversation of food


Words on Roadkill