We Asked a Hermit What to Eat When You Live in a Swamp Off the Grid
"I’ve learned a lot along the way. I have to have something to occupy my time, you know."
Guf at home in Rønnes Swamp, Skive, Denmark. All photos by Steen Don from the book The World According to Guf.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Denmark.
Steen Ingolf lives in a swamp in the Danish countryside. This has been his home for the last 30 years.
He lives in an alluringly run-down old bus that he bought for a casual $100. The inside walls are covered with old VHS tapes, DVDs, a movie poster, and a Pamela Anderson calendar. There’s a wood stove, an old couch, and a green coffee pot.
In 2018, it’s not unreasonable to dream about turning your back on civilization to live a life far from social media, in-laws, and full-time employment. Very few, however, actually dare to live out such dreams. But 83-year-old Ingolf, or “Guf” as he’s called, isn’t like most people.
Guf is an older and more lively version of Christopher McCandless from Into the Wild. In Rønne Swamp in Skive, Denmark, he exists among the trees and moss, without electricity or running water. He prepares his meals using a wood stove inside the bus or over a fire pit he built outside. His water supply is a nearby stream, where he fetches a bucket whenever he’s thirsty or needs to cook or bathe.
Guf’s life has recently been depicted in the Danish book Verden ifølge Guf (The World According to Guf), written by local journalists Joan Thora E. Laurberg and Steen Don. The book describes a difficult childhood, life at sea, and stint in prison. It’s the story of a man who dropped out of society midway through life, but it’s also the story of a life lived in harmony with nature.
We decided to pay a visit to the swamp in Jutland to learn more about how a true hermit eats. We talked about badger meat, TV dinners, and sad mangoes.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Guf. What does an average day in the swamp look like for you?
Guf: I eat when I’m hungry. I don’t often eat in the morning, but sometimes I’ll eat a slice of bread with something on it. I don’t snack or eat between meals, since that would distract me from work, and then nothing would get done.
But I eat all sorts of things. Sometimes I slaughter one of my rabbits; other times I eat deer if one of them gets hit on the highway. If I take the bus to Vinderup, there’s usually someone who can point me in the right direction if I don’t spot one myself.
So what do you do with a deer that’s been hit by a car?
Well first I skin it, and then I butcher it. Then I sauté the meat in a pot to get it nice and brown. After that, I pour water over it and boil it for two hours.
Can you use the whole animal, then?
No, because sometimes parts of it have been crushed from the impact of the car. So I cut those parts out, boil them, and give them to the cats. It makes great cat food.
That’s a great idea. Are there other animals you collect from the roadside?
Yes, sometimes I find a badger that’s been hit—I eat those, too. Hunters used to eat them back in the day but now they’re a protected species.
What does badger taste like?
Kind of like wild boar.
Sounds tasty. Have you eaten any other forest creatures?
One time on a bike trip to Italy, I ate a squirrel. It was okay, but I don’t eat the squirrels here in the swamp. I wouldn’t kill them if given the opportunity.
There was also one time I tried eating a viper. I skinned it and fried it, but there wasn’t much meat on it. The consistency was a bit like chicken.
Are there other things you’re able to forage from the swamp?
Oh yes, of course. I find raspberries, lingonberries, blueberries, and lots of different plants. I can’t remember what all of their exact names are. In autumn I collect mushrooms. I also pick apples and gooseberries, and preserve them so I can use them for several weeks.
Have you ever eaten anything that your stomach couldn’t handle?
Nope. But you have to know a thing or two about your environment and what you’re putting in your mouth. It’d be dangerous not to. It’s not that I knew very much before I moved out here, but I’ve learned a lot along the way. I have to have something to occupy my time, you know.
Do you grow any of your own food?
Yes, I usually have a little vegetable garden where I grow potatoes, carrots, and leeks. It’s not that big, just one meter long. I don’t have anything growing right now, though.
Well, I do live in a swamp, and the water level’s been too high for a while now, so the potatoes spoiled last year.
How do you prepare your food?
I usually do it inside my bus. I almost never use my kitchen, since it isn’t the fanciest. I use my wood stove instead. I already use it to heat up the bus, so I might as well use it to cook too. It needs lots of wood in the winter, but in the summer I cook outside at my firepit instead. It gets too hot inside the bus to fire up the wood stove.
What’s your favorite dish?
That would have to be roast badger with potatoes. I don’t make a sauce for it. Instead I use all the drippings left over from browning the meat in butter. It works great as a sauce.
How often do you go to a grocery store?
Twice a week, usually. It’s about 7 miles from my bus.
Is there anything in particular you always put in your basket?
Yes—cat food and bread. If I don’t have anything at home, sometimes I buy frozen dinners. Those are usually something with spaghetti or fish.
Is there anything you like to buy to treat yourself?
Rice pudding. I love that stuff. I also buy mango and watermelon pretty frequently. I’ve been around the world as a sailor, so I’m a big fan of exotic fruits. But the mangoes we get here are a lot smaller and tougher than the ones you can get in other countries. Pineapples taste ten times better, too, if you eat them in the same place they’re grown.
Where was the best meal you’ve ever had?
I don’t know; I haven’t kept track. During my seafaring days, it was still pretty limited how far I could roam from port. Eating at restaurants hasn’t been something I’ve done a whole lot of. I usually went for a beer instead.
The swamp is filled with birch trees—do you ever tap them for their sap?
Yeah, I’ve done that from time to time. I like it; it tastes a bit like bark.