Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Food for Free

Posted on by royvickery |

Richard Mabey, Food for Free, Collins, 2012.
Mabey’s Food for Free which first appeared in 1972 was an instant success and had an immense influence on what has become the current interest in foraging. For over 40 years the book has seldom, if ever, been out of print, with an ‘all-colour’ version being published in 1989, and now a 40th anniversary, sumptuously illustrated edition has been produced.
This, according to its front cover is ‘the complete guide to help you safely identify edible species that grow around us, together with detailed artwork, photographs, field identification notes and recipes.’
However, few people will want to take such a book on a foraging walk; it’s more likely to be admired by arm-chair foragers.
A major feature of the book is its magnificent photographs, many of which are useful as aids to identification, but some are less so: the first of the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) photographs is dominated by yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon), the photograph (and description) of watercress (Nasturtium officinale, syn. Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) does little to help to distinguish it from fool’s watercress (Apium nodiflorum) and one of the photographs of mushroom (Agaricus campestris) appears to show it growing through pine needles in woodland. I, for one, would reject any mushroom-like fungus growing in such a habitat. Two photographs of lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) are provided, occupying a page and a half, on the grounds that ‘Gerard … recommends it as a boiled vegetable’.
Apart from the photographs the book provides an extensive selection of colour drawings, strangely entitled ‘Glossary of species’; potential foragers are advised to study these as well as the photographs when trying to identify their finds.
After the well-written introductory matter, Mabey moves to the description of species which can be eaten and of poisonous species with which they might be confused. These descriptions are divided into six sections: trees, herbaceous plants, fungi, lichens (and ferns), seaweeds and shellfish. Rather bizarrely hop (Humulus lupulus) is listed under trees, and woody plants such as blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) and bog myrtle (Myrica gale) are classified as ‘herbaceous’.
Only one fern is included. This is not bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), the young shoots of which have been widely eaten, but maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris), which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was ‘used as a garnish to sweet dishes’. Late in the nineteenth century ‘it formed the basis of capillare, which was a popular flavouring’.
The publishers have brought together a best-selling author and a large range of attractive photographs, and have no doubt produced a best-selling book, but one doubts if it will stimulate a great number of new foragers.

Other opinions concerning Food for Free would be appreciated.

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