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Richard Mabey: The father of modern foraging

In the 1970s, Richard Mabey's passion for wild food was seen as eccentric. He tells Lena Corner what it's been like to see the movement shift into the mainstream.

Lena Corner
Thursday 12 April 2012 22:04 BST
Richard Mabey: The father of modern foraging
Richard Mabey: The father of modern foraging (Susannah Ireland)

Back in the early 1970s, when Richard Mabey was an energetic young twentysomething, every spare moment of his time would be spent rustling around in hedgerows or coastal mud flats in search of morsels to eat. It wasn't that he was homeless or broke – it was sheer culinary curiosity.

"I'd get up at the crack of dawn with an enormous basket slung over my back and go tramping for the day," he says.

"If I was up in Norfolk I'd go to the coast and look for samphire or sea kale. I'd then go inland for crab apples and rowanberries. Occasionally I'd have enough to put together a passable three-course meal."

He picked elderflower blossom, which he discovered makes a fabulous frittata. He tried chickweed, which he'd throw into a garlicky salad and he gathered acorns, which he would roast and chop and use as a substitute for almonds. He brushed up on everything that was on the Ministry of Agriculture's dangerous plants list – "surprisingly few" – and simply decided he would try everything else.

If this meant eating the leaves from most of Britain's deciduous trees – so be it. "A little bit tannin-rich," he admits, "but I really went for beech leaves and lime leaves too, which were gloriously gelatinous." He also took a liking to the little shrubs he found growing in East Anglian marshlands. "They had lovely fleshy leaves because they lived by the sea. So I munched my way through those and found them to be extremely agreeable." Mabey meticulously documented all his findings, along with identification notes and recipes and published them in a book entitled Food For Free (1972). It became known as the forager's bible and has sold consistently ever since. This month [April] a special updated 40th anniversary edition is published to celebrate.

"I was surprised that it lasted more than a year," says Mabey. "But certainly by the time it got to 20 years it was obvious that it touched some kind of national, cultural tender spot."

Just how way ahead of his time Mabey was all those years ago, is only really just becoming clear today. Ideas about reconnecting with the wild and regaining taste lost in cultivation are currently hot topics in foodie circles. Local, sustainable and seasonal are all buzzwords on the most fashionable menus. And Noma in Copenhagen, winner of the coveted best restaurant in the world title in 2011, sells pretty much nothing but foraged foods. In this country Simon Rogan at L'enclume in Cumbria has similar ethos. For a practise that Mabey says used to be, "considered mildly eccentric, part of the counter-culture not the food business", it features pretty heavily on our TV schedules, too. Recently Thomasina Miers, Ray Mears and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have all cropped up beseeching us that a tasty meal really can to be found in that patch of scrubland to the back of your house.

Mabey, however, is keen to point out he is just part of a long tradition of foragers that started with the Neolithic hunter-gathers and went via the 18th century naturalists, who began writing the first wild food books, right to where we are today. He is also keen to point out it has nothing whatsoever to do with need or subsistence. "Foraging in our culture is a middle-class hobby," he says. "It isn't about survival or anything like that. It's basically a load of largely middle-class foodies and ruralists going out and getting a romantic kick out of this very sensual engagement with nature. I'm not deriding that. That's precisely why I do it, but it is important to recognise that fact."

A nd although it is clearly popular nowadays, you do wonder how many people are actually out there loading up their baskets with shoots and leaves and how many are just armchair fans. "When I lived in the Chilterns there were sometimes queues in the woods for fungi," says Mabey. "But I have to say I don't see enormous numbers of foragers and I'm out in the countryside a lot."

Even so, we now have weekend coach parties coming from northern France in the autumn to pick our fabulous array of free fungi. And as well as this, in some places, foraging has been elevated to semi-professional level with some gatherers collecting wild foods to supply to restaurants. Is there a possibility that we are in danger of stripping our hedgerows bare and plundering our forests of fungi forever? "I personally haven't seen any evidence that foraging has damaged a landscape or eco system," says Mabey. "I've seen the occasional blackberry or raspberry bushes trampled into the ground but I have no doubt that has been happening for hundreds of years. The thing that is the worrying is the mass picking of quite scarce fungi in the south of the country but I think it would take many years of very determined plundering for the effects of that to actually show up in the population. They have these huge root systems which will constantly throw up new ones."

I ask him about the foraging potential for urban-dwellers. He says there are some great opportunities in London. "Along the tow paths of the Grand Union Canal anywhere from Camden to the Olympic Park you can find lots of stuff down there – feral grapes and wild fennel. Also there used to be some pretty good fungi in the grasslands around St Paul's Cathedral – there were at least three different types when I last went." Mabey is refreshingly gung-ho about popping untested things into his mouth. He doesn't have that innate fear so many of us do about dying due to a poisonous toadstool. "I branded into my brain everything that was truly toxic," he says, "and unless I was going to have an allergic reaction then I knew I wasn't going to harm myself." He reckons that getting food poisoning is harder than we all think. And in all his years out foraging (he's now 71) he's only ever suffered a bit of indigestion.

Judging by some of the recipes in his book, Mabey's hobby is a delicious one. There's pork chops with crushed juniper berries, hop frittata, chestnut puree, wild nettle soup, rock samphire hash and endless ways with mushrooms. Does he really think that food that is foraged actually tastes better?

"There is a curious psychological buzz that you get out of eating food that you have found yourself," he says.

"American wild foodies, who are much more advanced than we are, call it the quality of "gatheredness" and I think that's true. You go back home with your bag of finds and there is something rather special about it.

"I have no doubt that a lot of wild foods taste magically exciting."

Food for Free, 40th anniversary edition (Collins, £25)

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