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Foraging books - a review

There are lots of foraging books out there, but which one’s the best? Here’s my review some of the major titles.

The Garden Forager by Adele Nozedar

A good foraging book will always throw up some new plants you've not thought of trying, and provide inspiration for using your regular repertoire of foraging materials in a different way in the kitchen. I didn't know, for instance, that the berries of Leycesteria formosa (pheasant berry) are edible. The detailed line drawings are informative as well as looking pretty. The book takes as a starting point foraging in your own garden, which is a good place to begin once you start to realise the care that needs to be taken when foraging beyond the garden gate (contamination from roads, passing dogs, crop spraying, municipal weedkillers and more). The recipes are slightly more angled toward the Heston Blumenthal end of the culinary spectrum, but if you're a little bit adventurous there are some lovely ideas in here: I am definitely going to try the pine needle vodka tipple she describes, for instance.

Backyard Foraging by Ellen Zachos

Just the title sold me on this book because back garden foraging is my speciality. With two small kids, there isn't much of a chance for excursions to remote places, whereas my back garden is a couple of steps away, and packed full of plants I can eat, as this book shows. I consider myself to be a reasonably experienced forager, now, but there were some genuine surprises in this well-illustrated and informative book. Oregon grapes, yes; nasturtiums, naturally, but firethorn? Really? And spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), too. I am still delving into it to see what other edible delights might be on offer in my garden. There's a useful code at the top showing what seasons each plant can be eaten, and the text is well-written. This is an American book so British readers may have to skip the section on prickly pears.

The Forager's Kitchen by Fiona Bird

This isn't so much a guide to foraging as a cookbook for foraged ingredients. Like The Forager Handbook (see below for a review), it's inspiring, but somehow the recipes seem more realistic: something you could recreate in your own kitchen rather than a recipe you'd see on the final of Masterchef. I, for one, can't wait to try salted caramel wild hazelnut shortbread, and crabapple and wild honeysuckle jelly. This book is no doubt more accessible to the foraging newbie, because it shows you in full technicolour the culinary possibilities foraged ingredients can provide. I'd love to go foraging with Fiona Bird, she clearly knows her stuff.

The Weeder's Digest by Gail Harland

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.

Food For Free by Richard Mabey

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.

The Thrifty Forager by Alys Fowler

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.

The Forager Handbook by Miles Irving

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.

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.

Hedgerow by John Wright: River Cottage Handbook No.7

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 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, form the foundation for an entire approach to thinking about, acquiring, and preparing food.

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