Spending Sunday waving the Union Jack? Why not wave a green flag for the rest of the Bank Holiday weekend and go foraging with this month’s Taste of SF: Linda Leatherbarrow on Richard Mabey’s classic guide, Food for Free.
This morning, in the woods on Tooting Common, the sight of a young man plucking nettles and dropping them into a forage bag instantly reconnected me to my earlier life where ‘found food’ was a regular treat: wild parsnips, raspberries, blaeberries, angelica stems or water mint. Back in the 1970s, in my anti-consumerist hippy days, my home was sometimes an old Bedford van. Crammed with partner, three children, scruffy dog, cooking equipment, mattresses and quilts, this arthritic dragon – belching out smoke and small metal parts – transported us up and down the country lanes of Britain and Ireland. We enjoyed impromptu alfresco meals often gathered, picked or dug up from woods and field corners at dusk. ‘Dusking’ Richard Mabey calls it.
Back home from the Common, I found my well-thumbed copy of Mabey’s 1972 classic, Food for Free
, and gave myself up, yet again, to the pleasure of rereading. His book is not just an aid to identification of Britain’s edible plants, it is also a compendium of nature lore, recipes and social history. ‘The plants’, he writes, ‘are a museum in themselves, hangovers from times when palates were less fastidious, living records of famines and changing fashions and even whole peoples.’ His entry for stinging nettle includes the note that Samuel Pepys enjoyed nettle ‘porridge’ on 25 February 1661. Nettles can also be made into soup, beer and herbal tea, or used as a kind of early spring kale, and with oatmeal and freshly fried bacon they make a delicious nettle haggis. Apparently, in Sweden, fibres from the stalks were once woven into cloth; and during the Second World War hundreds of tons of these spiteful yet surprisingly useful leaves were gathered for the extraction of chlorophyll and dyes for camouflage nets.
Born in 1941, Mabey grew up in Hertfordshire. His family home lay at the edge of hundreds of acres of abandoned parkland belonging to The Hall, a derelict building – once the home of Graham Greene’s uncle Charles – and the focus of much local scavenging: Mabey’s father acquired several slabs of elegant marble for use as shelves in his greenhouse. The old park was a wonderful place for childhood explorations and the young Mabey often stayed out all day with his friends, making dens, roasting potatoes on bonfires, nibbling concoctions of rose petals, and munching young hawthorn leaves straight off the twig. Like Mabey, I also grew up in Hertfordshire. In the fields and woods at the bottom of my garden there was a powerful feeling of solace and security, a wonderful peppery tang in the air which signalled food: damsons, crab apples, hogweed and elderberries. I would scour the verges for the crinkly palm-like leaves of the horseradish plant, then grub out a piece of root to accompany the Sunday roast.
Commenting on how expensive commercial horseradish sauce is, Mabey suggests that ‘British Rail could probably pay off their deficit if they cropped the plants growing along their cuttings’. For a ‘rampaging alternative’ he suggests an 1857 recipe for Universal Devil’s Mixture which includes Durham mustard, chilli vinegar, cayenne and choppedchillies. While it is certainly true that the knobbly root is a devil to peel and eye-wateringly sharp when grated, it’s nowhere near as dangerous as the sweet chestnuts my family used to gather in the autumn.
By the shelter of the old Bedford, wrapped in quilts against the chill, we would plunge these into the glowing ashes of an open fire, often forgetting to slit their skins first. Mabey’s advice is always to leave one unslit. ‘When this explodes,’ he says, ‘the others are ready. The explosion is fairly ferocious, scattering hot shrapnel over the room, so sit well back from the fire and make sure all the other nuts have been slit.’ In addition to chestnut ordnance, we also roasted beech nuts, less explosive, easily found, but requiring patience to wheedle out of their little three-faced shells.
We camped in open glades, the air filled with the scent of edible flowers and salad leaves, but of course some plants were much more worthwhile than others. To help the reader choose, Mabey uses a rating system. Each plant gets an A, B or C rating. An A rating means the plant is both common and good to eat, such as dandelion, wood sorrel or lime, which are all delicious in salads. Lime and dandelion flowers also produce a fragrant wine and I remember my father would have several flagons maturing on the round table by his armchair – any awkward family silences often delightfully broken by the Ealing comedy pop-rumble-gurgle of gas bubbles escaping through the airlock. B-rated plants are also common and good to eat but are given nominal treatment because they are similar to the preceding A-rated entry, for instance shepherd’s purse which follows on from chickweed. Both can simply be wilted in a pan with a little butter and taste like early cabbage. The C rating is for plants of mainly historical interest and those that are rare and therefore shouldn’t be eaten, like the purple orchis.
When he was writing Food for Free, Mabey rented a cottage in Blakeney and combed the Norfolk coast for shellfish and sea-kale, bladderwrack and alexanders (brought to this country as a pot-herb by the Romans), crab grass and the highly succulent marsh samphire. ‘Picking samphire brings out the absurd in all but the most reserved of souls,’ he writes. ‘This is a world crisscrossed by deep and hidden creeks, by which you will be tripped, cut off and plastered up to the thigh with glistening wet mud.’ Somehow he makes all this seem entirely enjoyable. Samphire is best cooked like asparagus or pickled in cold spiced vinegar.
Most of Mabey’s recipes are delicious, if sometimes a little Seventies in flavour, but there is one whole section of the book I confess I’ve never had the courage to tackle – fungi. In fact, as Mabey points out, only about twenty out of a total of three thousand species growing wild in Britain are poisonous. ‘The unearthly qualities of fungi no doubt exaggerate these worries. They rise up quickly in lightless places. Many of them thrive on the dead or dying remains of other plants – or worse, of animals.’
Clear guidance on identification is offered and he advises on how and when to pick them. Just the names of some of these plants are a treat: fairy club, puffball, wood hedgehog, horn of plenty, shaggy parasol, broody hen and shaggy cap, also known as inkhorn or lawyer’s wig.
There are sections for roots, greens, stems, herbs and spices, and it’s difficult to stop reading: white water-lily tubers and Jack-by-thehedge, also known as hedge garlic but not to be confused with wild garlic. Surprisingly, and with charming inconsistency, Mabey gives the latter a C rating, not because it’s rare, but because it’s so pretty I remembered chugging along the Llangollen canal in a sixty-foot narrow boat, the scent of wild garlic filling the cabin. My children, unable to resist its white star-like flowers, had found it below the hedges beside the canal. ‘Even wrapped in newspaper and banished to the boot of your car,’ says Mabey, ‘you will still find the need to travel with your windows open.’ We crossed the aqueduct, thrillingly high up, with only the thinnest railing between us and the sky, trailing our pungent wake behind us.
The photograph on the back panel of the jacket shows the author sitting astride what appears to be a lock gate, the shadowy shape of a boat behind him. Wearing a soft corduroy jacket, he is clasping a pint beer glass and smiling broadly from beneath a thick Seventies fringe. He looks happy and so he should. The book went on to become a huge bestseller and is still in print today. There were many more books to come, including a prize-winning biography of Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century naturalist. However, exhausted after completing his masterpiece, Flora Britannica
(1996), Mabey fell into a severe clinical depression. Unable to write, he ran out of money, his home was sold, and he moved to the flatlands of East Anglia. There, cared for by friends, he began the process of recovery. Not so much submitting to nature – long walks, fresh air – in the hope that it would exorcise the demons, but letting nature in. Reconnecting with the seasons and with writing. Exploring and foraging again. Reading on, I came across his entry for sloe and decided to treat myself to a glass of my daughter’s sloe gin. The sloes had been picked on the Common last year, round about the time of the first winter frost, the best time to pick them. Glass in hand, I discovered that this small round dark-blue berry of the blackthorn is the ancestor of the cultivated plum. The sloe crossed with cherry plums from the Middle East, hence the name – Damascenes, Damasks, damsons.
This is a book that has been a life-time friend, not just for the ease with which it enabled me to track down those ‘curly roots and fiddlesome leaves’, or because Mabey writes so engagingly, but because, even in a world of industrialized food, edible plants are still there – in cities and countryside – for those who care to seek them out. Still waving their small green optimistic flags.
© Linda Leatherbarrow, 2009
Linda looks forward to sampling ‘lamb’s wool’, a drink made with hot ale and crab apples. Her collection of short stories, Essential Kit, is published by Maia Press. The illustrations in this article by Marjorie Blamey appear in Food for Free.