By Richard Mabey
Published by Collins, £12.99
This book was first published in 1972, followed by a full colour edition
in 1989, and now a new edition in 2007.
Through these 25 years Food for Free has become a classic, used and loved
by countless people from town and country. It is a guide to foraging for
wild food in the British countryside, but is so much more than that.
The author describes each plant, where to find it and how to enjoy it
at its best. Sometimes he includes a recipe, often of ancient tradition,
some sent in by readers. He also tells the history of each food item and
its place in rural life. All are accompanied by clear, beautiful colour
illustrations by a variety of artists. Included are plants, trees, fungi,
lichens, seaweeds and shellfish.
Here is an example to give a flavour of the book: “Fat-hen (chenopodium
album): common in cultivated and waste ground throughout Britain. An undistinguished
plant, 20-150 cm (8-60 inches) tall, with stiff upright stems and diamond
–shaped greyish-green leaves. Flowers June to September, pale green,
minute and bunched into spikes.
“Fat-hen is one of those plants that thrive in the company of humans…
It is one of the very first plants to colonise ground that has been disturbed
by roadworks or house-building, its stiff, mealy spikes often appearing
in prodigious quantity. No wonder that its use as a food plant dates back
to prehistoric times. Remains of the plant have been found in Neolithic
settlements all over Europe. The seeds also form part of the last, possibly
ritual meal fed to Tollund Man (whose perfectly preserved corpse, stomach
contents included, was recovered from a bog in Denmark in 1950).
“In Anglo-Saxon times the plant was apparently of sufficient importance
to have villages named after it. As melde it is thought to have given
its name to Melbourn in Cambridgeshire and Milden in Suffolk. The introduction
of spinach, a domesticated relative, largely put an end to the use of
the plant, but its leaves continued to be eaten in Ireland and the Scottish
islands for a long while, and in many parts of Europe during the famine
conditions of the Second World War. We now know that early people were
lucky in their choice of fat-hen as a staple vegetable, for it contains
more iron and protein than either cabbage or spinach, and more vitamin
B1 and calcium than raw cabbage.
“The whole plant can be eaten raw, but it is probably best prepared
and cooked in the same way as spinach, as a green vegetable, or in soups.
It is pleasantly tangy, like young kale or broccoli.”
This quote illustrates Richard Mabey’s holistic approach; it also
gives us practical information for potentially hard times ahead. Foraging
has now become fashionable, being promoted by certain celebrity chefs,
and Mabey warns of the danger of over-exploitation. Food for Free has
always been popular not just for helping people get back in touch with
Nature, but also for encouraging conservation of precious resources.
Richard Mabey has a deep knowledge of our Flora and Fauna, and for decades
has researched their history and biology, writing other classic works
such as Flora Britannica. But his writing is never dry or boring; it is
poetic and moving without being sentimental, as his care and feeling for
our natural heritage shines through.