BOOK REVIEW

Food For Free
by Richard Mabey
pub. HarperCollins, 2001
Paperback, 192 pages, 16.99
ISBN 000 220159 3

It is thirty years since Richard Mabey first published this popular volume but, as he says in his Introduction, wild foods are a bit 'self-indulgent' given our busy modern lifestyles and the 'hero' foods - as he likes to call them - that are available on our supermarket shelves.

The wild plants covered by the book can all be found in Britain, although it is illegal to pick some of the ones mentioned (there for purely historical interest) and there are laws about the gathering of certain wild plants which need to be adhered to.

The organisation of plants by season slightly threw this reviewer to start with, similar books frequently breaking candidates into family groups or types. After a while though, the logic of Mabey's construction makes sense. Open the book during spring or winter and you can see what plants you may expect to find or forage... an activity known as 'wild crafting' In the United States.

A selection of photographs - variously close up and wide angle - guides readers towards plant recognition, with very brief physiological text details providing further help.

Mabey's text descriptions are entertaining as well as enlightening - providing both historical and nutritional backgrounds, plus occasional recipes to try out for yourself. The latter tend to cover the rather more common plants - nettle soup, for example, thyme soup and nut cutlets. What isn't really dealt with are utilising more exotic wild plants like seaweeds or reeds. However, Mabey's historical insights into past plant usage might encourage experimentation among real cooks out there; some of our wild plants once being culivated in ages past as vegetables and pot herbs but falling out of favour... Silverweed and Scurvy Grass being two examples. Incidentally, Anton Mossiman apparently tackled a nettle pate once.

Bottom line...
This is perhaps a book for the curious... something to explore if you are fed up with frozen peas, standardised carrots and uniform shrink-wrapped string beans. The knowledge contained could be useful for outdoors people who fancy living off the land, or get stuck for some veggy when out camping, though the book is not really one to slip into your ruc-sac. One final warning, though, as with all books of this nature, you need to know what you are doing particularly when dealing with fungi.

See also on-site details of 'The Really Wild Food Guide'

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