There are lots of foraging books out there, but which one’s the best? Here’s my review some of the major titles.
(Review added on July 19 2012)
When this book landed on my desk, it took me just a few seconds of flicking through to discover it was my new favourite foraging tome. It ticks all the boxes for me: excellent photos for easy identification, detailed information about the possible risks of different foraged plants (which are often alluded to in other books, but rarely covered in enough detail), and a good selection of recipes and ideas for using your bounty. There's also a useful section on growing some of these plants in your own garden, if you aren't up for picking plants elsewhere. It's small enough to carry around in your rucksack for on-the-go identification of plants, but detailed enough to serve as your main reference guide.
This is the classic forager’s guide, first published more than 30 years ago and still going strong. Small enough to fit in your pocket, sturdy enough to survive a few dips into muddy puddles, it features hand drawings that are detailed enough to help you make a positive identification of most plants you’ll come across. Mabey’s also honest about how good things taste, and balances practical details with lots of historical information too. If you’re serious about foraging, this is a must-have, and at £4.99 it won’t cost you a fortune.
This is not a field guide in the vein of Food For Free, but a book you can study at home before heading out on a walk, for inspiration and guidance, then open it again once you’re home to confirm your foraging finds . That said, there’s loads of useful information on identifying plants, including very clear guides to leaf shape and positioning. The strength of this book is that it focuses on things that you’ll find in urban and suburban settings, rather than the wild places of Britain. This makes sense - after all, most of us will want to forage regularly in our home environs. Alys also provides food for thought for would-be foragers in the form of sections where she meets various people and projects with a foraging theme, such as Incredible Edible Todmorden.
*Disclosure: Alys is the Guardian’s gardening columnist and as gardening editor, I edit her copy.
I met Miles Irving at the Hampton Court Flower Show this year and tasted his delicious meadowsweet cordial and yarrow flower shortbread. His book has been out for a couple of years now but I hadn’t come across it before. It’s a weighty hardback tome, most definitely a reference book rather than a field guide. This book is exhaustive, with hundreds of plants listed, and impressive detail about where each plant has – and hasn’t – been found in the UK.
It’s one for the gourmet cook, including recipes featuring foraged ingredients from top chefs. That’s because Miles forages for a living, supplying top restaurants with everything from fat hen to shepherd’s purse. I loved some of the detail here, such as the fact that he supplies the famous London restaurant The Ivy with the tiny flowers of the ivy-leaved toadflax to garnish a signature dish (I tasted one of these the other day – absolutely flavourless to my unrefined tastebuds).
But what lets this book down are the pictures. The small black and white images lose a lot of the detail necessary for a positive identification, so I am left wondering what the difference between wall lettuce and shepherd's purse really is. It’s a great book for the serious forager but you’ll need to cross reference with other books to check that you’ve got the right plant and not a poisonous imposter.
(Review by Toby Travis, added September 26 2011)
Small enough to fit in a backpack, entertaining enough to read in the bath - Hedgerow by John Wright is a worthy addition to the excellent River Cottage Handbook series. The blurb describes the book as "a thoroughly practical guide to gathering edible plants from hedgerow and wood, meadow and heath".
The plant descriptions are witty, opinionated and informative. The photos, together with the text, have been sufficient for me to safely identify such wild delights as alexanders, garlic mustard, yarrow and wood sorrel. That I burnt my mouth eating lords and ladies leaves instead of sorrel is entirely my own fault as there is a photo in the book highlighting the difference between the two.
There is also a very useful chart showing when particular plants are in season.
I haven't tried any of the dishes from the short recipe section at the back, but chestnut pancakes with birch sap syrup must surely be the holy grail for the dedicated autumn forager.
It's not cheap at £14.99 but, along with Mushrooms and Edible Seashore (Nos 1 and 5 respectively in the same series), this has become my primary source of inspiration before setting out on a foraging expedition.
Put together, the seven handbooks (also including concise and illuminating volumes on bread-baking, cake-baking and preserving), form the foundation for an entire approach to thinking about, acquiring, and preparing food.
Apps and maps
There's a useful collaborative map of where useful and edible plants are available which you can view online at Forager's Friend. This is a superb idea, which also comes as an app for use on the move, but like a lot of projects of this nature, it's partly dependent on where you live as to whether you'll be able to glean much in the way of foraging tips for your local area - there are just two entries for my home town, for instance (although I plan to add lots more!).
There are also a number of foraging apps available, none of which I have tried because I own the world's most basic mobile phone. If you have, do add your experienes with these below. Or have you got another favourite foraging guide? If you have, please feel free to add your thoughts below, or even email me a mini-review to add to this post – email@example.com. I'll be adding other titles as I read them - to come next, Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons.