From the Bookshelf – foragers’ field guides

It felt like autumn was in the air this morning. Harvest is well under way (and didn’t I know it at gone bedtime last night, with the combine still beavering away under floodlights in the field next door!) and Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is just around the corner. Autumn is a gift to foragers (human and animal alike!) and at this time of year, whoever you are, and whether you live in the town or the country, there is a bounty of marvellous free food just waiting to be gathered up, and the traditional British hedgerow is definitely the place to be going looking for it!

There are the wild fruit nearly everyone knows, of course – most of us would recognise a bramble (wild blackberry), a crab apple or a rose hip. But there are rarer (or at least, less well recognised) autumn fruit that are just as worthy of attention. Can you confidently recognise elderberries and rowans? What about telling the difference between damsons, sloes and bullaces? Are wild raspberries or hops growing in your local hedges? Did you spot the distinctive spring showing of your local cob nut trees, and the blossom of the blackthorn, and manage to commit them to memory? If you’re relatively new to foraging, or even if you’ve been doing it all your life and think you know the offerings of your local hedgerows, verges, and field margins (and don’t dismiss roundabouts!) intimately, a good field guide is essential to getting the most out of your local foraging opportunities.

[Full disclosure: ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ came to me free of charge as a review copy from Random House. I bought ‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’ with my own money, a couple of years ago.  I do not have an amazon affiliate account, any links provided are for interest and convenience, and I don’t profit from them in any way!]

The Hedgerow Handbook, by Adele Nozedar‘The Hedgerow Handbook’, by Adele Nozedar, (illustrations by Lizzie Harper).
Square Peg / Random House, 2012.
ISBN 978-0-224-08671-4. RRP £12.99.
See this book at amazon.co.uk

The first thing you notice is what a beautiful little book this is, graced inside and out with the loveliest hand-drawn botanical illustrations.  It’s a pretty little hardback, nicely printed on quality paper, and has great ‘object’ qualities, to be handled, flicked through, and admired – all of the things that make physical books so special compared to their digital cousins.

The illustrations are a huge strength of this particular guide – hand-illustrations are always better than photographs for identification, as they allow all the relevant details and characteristics of a plant – and different stages of its life cycle, such as buds and leaves, flowers and fruit – to be shown together, when this would be impractical in a single photo. Illustrations also tend to be clearer, and generalise the appearance of a species rather than showing a particular ‘individual’ growing in a particular place at a particular time.

Inside page viewArranged alphabetically, each hedgerow plant in the book is fully illustrated, the illustration accompanied by a useful description of its habit (and habitat). Culinary and traditional medicinal uses are then briefly discussed, along with curiosities and anecdotes, and folklore associated with the plant – after which Adele shares one or more recipes.

There are some really exciting and unusual recipes here that I can’t wait to try, at an appropriate opportunity – it’s not just the usual suspects like blackberry jam and elderflower champagne.  The idea of pickled ash keys is intriguing, and I’ll definitely be looking out for these when they’re young and tender again next spring. There are plants in this book that I would never have thought were edible – for instance, I’d somewhere along the line picked up the conviction that ox-eye daisies were poisonous, it turns out the buds can be pickled, and the young flowers deep fried in tempura batter.

As a gardener, I’m delighted to to discover that in addition to nettles, other pernicious weeds like cleavers and ground elder can also offer up, if not a square meal, then at least a free green vegetable dish!

Of course, knowing you can eat cleavers in theory is all very well – it’s essential I think that a sensible suggestion is also made as to what you might like to do with them, and this, along with the really wide range of species included, is a real strength of this book.  Recipe suggestions include preserves, cordials, and country wines, as well as savoury dishes and deserts, and make a really interesting and inspiring collection.

If I had to make any criticism at all of this little book, it would be that I’m not quite sure alphabetical order is the most obvious organisation for a field guide – arrangement by season or habit / habitat feel more natural. A note of possible confusion species, and how to avoid making these mistakes, is often a feature of guides like this, and is missing here – though the quality of the illustrations and annotations make going astray quite unlikely.  Finally, for me, the author’s enthusiasm for herbal medicine was sometimes a bit distracting – but I must confess to liking my medicine firmly evidence-based!

All in all this is a great practical little book that should be on your shelf if you enjoy a spot of hedgerow foraging – and you needn’t be in the country to find it useful!  Being such a pretty little book, I think it would also make a really lovely gift!

River Cottage Handbook No.7 - Hedgerow‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’, by John Wright.
Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 2010.
ISBN 978-1-4088-0185-7.  RRP £14.99.
See this book on amazon.co.uk

Another pretty little hardback without a slip-cover, this one is bright and full of photographs.  With the commentary on illustrations above in mind, this isn’t ideal – but considering that, they’re good photographs and ‘do the job’!

This book starts with a good comprehensive section on the generalities of foraging before moving on to identification of about 70 edible species.  After this, some of the potentially poisonous species are also identified – useful!  The back section of the book is set aside for recipes.

The front section of this book is especially useful, covering the legal aspects of taking plants and flowers from the wild in the UK, as well as a great tabular guide to the growing and harvesting seasons of the various species.  The set of edible species listed overlaps quite considerably, though not completely, with those in ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ – as you would expect from two books covering the same ground.

Inside page viewFor each plant, one or more photographs are provided, along with a useful summary covering description, habitat, season and distribution.  Combined with the introductory section, this makes it a really useful practical field guide.

It’s reassuring – and really interesting, actually! – to be able to confidently identify the toxic hedgerow species, and the third section covers these – the hemlocks, nightshades, foxgloves and suchlike.

The recipes, when we finally get to them, are much sparser on the ground, and do contain some ‘usual suspects’ like elderflower cordial, but are generally of nice quality, and well fleshed-out and illustrated.

As a whole the book does sit very well among the others in the ‘River Cottage Handbook’ series (which I have to confess to having acquired, um, all of so far), and avoids duplication.  This does mean that other recipes for foraged foods turn up in other handbooks, particularly the Pam Corbin ‘Preserves’ book.  Mushrooms and costal foraging also have their own volumes, which are very similarly presented and also very competent, interesting little books.  I would definitely recommend this volume, but be aware it’s likely to act as a ‘gateway’ purchase to the rest of the series!

Both of these are cracking little books which I can thoroughly recommend to you. Whichever you choose (hell, get both, you know you want to!) I hope you find them really useful for your autumn foraging efforts, and for many years to come!

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4 thoughts on “From the Bookshelf – foragers’ field guides

  1. Hi Toni…thanks so much for the review, which was just forwarded by a friend. I also love the John Wright book, too. I did actually consider listing the entries by season rather than alphabetically, but decided against it in the end, since I wanted to cover all aspects of certain plants all in the same place. Thanks again!

  2. Thanks Adele (gosh, the internet is a small place!). It’s a great little book, obviously represents a huge amount of work! Just collecting the recipes must have been a mammoth task! It’ll be a reference book that comes out again and again in this house, so thank you for writing it!

  3. Pingback: The Key, The Secret? – spicy pickled ash keys | Country Skills for Modern Life

  4. Pingback: Elderflower Vinegar, From the Forager’s Kitchen by Fiona Bird – Cooking the Books, Week 22 | Country Skills for Modern Life

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