* Prices may differ from that shown
Since I was a child I have enjoyed gathering blackberries, sloes and rosehips from the countryside. I know that there are a plenty of edible plants in the fields and hedgerows that I can't identify, so I decided to buy a guide to foraging. I selected Self-Sufficiency Foraging by David Squire as it was available at a reduced price in my local book shop, because I was also buying another title in the same series. I paid £3.99, the full cover price being £7.99.
THE BOOK ITSELF.
New Holland Publishing have published a series of small guides dealing with one aspect of self-sufficiency each. I also have the guide to preserving, which I will review when I have tried more of the recipes. Other titles in the series deal with beekeeping, soap making and natural health remedies. The author of the book I am reviewing today isn't a writer that is familiar to me. David Squire is described as a botanist, gardener, journalist, and the author of more than 80 books on plants so he certainly seems to have the right experience to write a book on foraging.
The book is roughly paperback novel sized, perhaps a bit larger, but definitely small enough to take with you on a foraging expedition. The fact that it is paperback, and has 128 pages also keeps it helpfully light. The book is illustrated throughout, with attractive colour drawings to accompany each potential foodstuff. This is partially why I was attracted to the book, although after using the book "in the field" I would probably prefer photo illustrations, as I will explain below.
Before the food guide itself, there is an introduction to foraging which I found a useful and interesting read. I didn't know for example, that it isn't legal to dig up even a "wild" weed without the landowners permission. The other advice is more a case of using your common sense - such as not eating a fungi if you have not definitely identified it as safe to eat. It also reminds you that food from the countryside isn't neccessarily unpolluted, because of the use of chemical sprays on farms and the possibility of dogs urinating on low down leaves. Careful washing of the foraged food is important!
FOOD FOR FREE?
The book covers edible wild plants, fruits, nuts, mushrooms, seaweeds and shellfish. If you live nowhere near the sea, and do not visit the coast, you should bear in mind that this means 2 chapters won't be much use to you. I did not use the shellfish section for another reason - I am vegetarian. Within each chapter, the foods are arranged alphabetically. I found this useful when I knew the name of the plant or tree that I wanted to read about. When I was foraging though, I felt that it would be helpful if the plants had been grouped either by habitat or physical characteristics. If I found a plant with white flowers and fern- like leaves for example, and wondered if it was edible, I had to flick through the whole book to find what it might be. If the numerous plants that look similar had been placed together, it would have made identification quicker for me. There were several occasions where I didn't feel confident that I could identify a plant correctly from the drawings provided. This is a problem when the plant is described as looking very similar to the deadly poisonous hemlock, as is the case with wild chervil. I decided not to take the risk, for obvious reasons. This is why I would personally prefer a photo of a plant to a drawing, however attractive.
Once you have identified your foodstuff, the book will tell you how to harvest the nuts/leaves/berries etc and how to use and store them. The information is brief, but I think it covers the essentials. There are also a few specific recipes which are useful, because by and large, these aren't the sort of ingredients that are used in regular cookbooks.
I think the author has done a good job of picking out the easier to find foodstuffs. Even if you don't live near open fields as I do, you may well find several of the edible plants growing in your garden - such as dandelions, ground elder, and chickweed. I was able to find plenty of choice around my organic allotment site, where I can be as sure as possible that they have not been touched by chemicals. I also recognise the shellfish and seaweed as being the most commonly found species, at least in the seaside areas that I visit.
WHAT I FOUND TO EAT
I bought this book last summer which was after the peak season for some of the foods listed. This is becuase in many cases you are advised to pick only the young leaves that come through in the spring, as the older ones become bitter and tougher. I still managed to find some food to pick though, and once the autumn came, it was time to look for nuts and berries. I have to say that I have been underwhelmed by a number of things I have tried. Yes, ground elder is edible if cooked like spinach, but I won't rush to do so again, when I have plenty of nicer tasting spinach to hand. The same is also true of curled dock which needed long cooking to make it palatable as it is too bitter and tough when first picked. Mahonia aquifolium [Oregon Grape] berries were a pleasant exception. They are edible raw, and I agree that they are lovely with sugar and cream, albeit a little tangy. My mum has this growing in her garden, and I had never considered that it may be edible. It is included in this book of wild foods because it is said to be naturalised in many areas. This is true of other plants that are included, including many garden herbs such as marjoram and rosemary. I have decided to learn mushroom foraging from an expert first hand, so I have not put my attempted identification of the fungi to the test. I did confidently identify a puffball [Calvatia gigantia] but I think this is probably due to the fact my parents picked them when I was young. They do not seem as common now, so I left the ones I found in peace.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK?
The fact I haven't relished all of the foraged goods is not the fault of the book. It is down to personal taste really. I know for sure that I have had a fantastic time trying to find food in the fields and hedgerows. I have taken this book with me on numerous walks over the last 9 months or so, and it is still in good condition, bar a few blackberry stains. The amount of edible food that has been under my nose all along has been a revealation. I am still interested in pursuing the subject further. I think this book serves as an ok introduction to foraging, providing you are happy to use the drawings for identification purposes. The information on how to use the foods is handy and easy to understand, and the recipes are interesting. Personally, I will now be saving up to buy a more comprehensive guide book with photos in, as this suits me better. I am grateful for this one for opening my eyes though.
ISBN 978 184 773 7724
Published by New Holland Publishing, 2011. £7.99.
Paperback, 128 pages.
[This review is also on Ciao, under my user name.]