Where the wild things are: Richard Mabey's 'Food for Free' has Emma Townshend salivating
Just don't remind her of her aunts' 1973 version of stinging-nettle soup.
Foraging is in fashion. After all, the Danish, Michelin-starred forager-chef René Redzepi was on the cover of Time magazine a few weeks ago! In his knitwear, with his lovely hair! It's true, they put a Copenhagen cook who gathers his ingredients by wandering through wild Danish forests with a basket over his arm like Red Riding Hood, on the front of the world's biggest- selling news weekly (OK, they went with something else on the cover of the US edition, but still...). What a guy!
The next question is whether foraging can fit itself somewhere into our neat British idea of gardening. Grow your own was big business in the UK, but what about foraging? According to some people at our nearby allotments, foraging is just "helping yourself to other people's grow your own". But thinking on a bigger and more honest scale, most people's city gardens, no matter how small, have got an untidy corner where brambles and elder flourish (I'm saying this after an extensive train-based survey). Those without gardens live near parks, wasteland, football pitches and even graveyards where wild things grow. And even city street trees bear fruit – tiny crab apples or rowan and hawthorn berries, which can be made into delicious jelly.
And when you come down to it, it's not even new. Though Redzepi's become famous for his foraged cuisine, and the world salutes him, we Brits thought of it first. My aunties were brewing up foraged stinging-nettle soup in 1973, when Redzepi was still a twinkle in the eye of his Albanian-Danish father (he's only 34! He makes me sick). So the diet of blackberries, elderflowers, wild garlic, sorrel and other odd things out of hedgerows I was forced (I mean "encouraged") to eat as a child? That's thanks to Britain's own Richard Mabey, who, in 1972, published Food for Free, the very first foraging book.
This year HarperCollins is reissuing Food for Free, and the intro doesn't waste time before namechecking Redzepi. But a quick flick through its pages is a keen reminder of Mabey's startling ability to write about nature and make you want to get out there and do it yourself.
One of the things that struck me most, rereading the glossy book which I remember as a grubby, nettle-stained paperback, is how many of the food suggestions I could find around my own neighbourhood. (In particular now that more recipes have been added.) Yep, who needs a Danish forest? You can find all that stuff somewhere under your nose.
And late spring is a particularly good time for all this. Some of Mabey's suggestions are surprisingly brilliant. Small smelly elder bush covered in flowers? Elderflower fritters! New leaves on those sticky lime trees most of us just moan about? Put them in a sandwich. I'm going to have to try it, even if I hate it. And if you must try that stinging-nettle soup? It's on page 94.
'Food for Free' is published by HarperCollins, priced £25
Let the wild rumpus begin!
Because foraging begins at home
Sorrel 'Buckler Leaf'
Tender and lemony, this woodland leaf will add a tart flavour to a salad. £1.95, sarahraven.com
Avoid a tangley time: for less than £15 you can buy a variety with big fruit and no thorns, for easy picking. "Loch Tay" produces up to 10 pounds of fruit per plant once firmly established. £14.95, unwins.co.uk
These are one of the best plants to have growing in your garden, as long as you have space. Taste: dee-licious. "Bluecrop" is self-fertile, essential if you only plant one. £10, blackmoor.co.uk
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