Picking your food for free from the fields and hedgerows is about more than just free food. It is also about fresh food, about ethical food and about food liberated from the normal transaction and distribution process.
This article reviews a small selection of books about the ‘wild foods’ that can be found in the countryside, both in North-West Europe and in North America. Many of the species mentioned in the books are common to both.
Foraging for food in nature puts us in touch with our pasts because many of the ‘wild foods’ that made up the staple diets of peoples over the past 15,000 years or more are still available today. Ultimately, however, the most satisfying thing about the food you pick yourself is that no energy has been wasted getting it from the field to your table. The problem is identifying the edible items in nature’s bountiful garden. And that is where the books come in handy.
People who live in the countryside already know how to harvest much of what’s available, but for the rest of us we need an idiot’s guide if we are to avoid poisoning ourselves on our first outing. Even experienced food scavengers will also find these books, and especially the illustrations, useful from time to time.
In 1972 Richard Mabey wrote the seminal book “Food for Free,” recently re-released in a revised version. Sadly the new version is not as good as some of the imitators that have emerged since. Many of the illustrations are completely redundant – rolling hills to illustrate autumn, for example. And there are annoying design features such as faint impressions of nettle leaves underneath some of the printed information, making it harder to read. All we really want is pictures of the edible plants. But the book’s principal failing is that the pictures are not really adequate to unerringly identify the variety of plant in question rather than a cousin. The book needs a “not to be confused with” section alongside each item, to give the typical user the confidence in what he or she is picking. Mabey’s advantage is his long relationship with the subject. He does know what he is talking about, and the over-designed book, cannot obscure that fact.
An example of the books that followed in the wake of Mabey’s work but perhaps do a better job is “Wild Food” by Roger Phillips. Click on the book to buy from Amazon. The photos are better and more helpful in identifying the plants, and the text is both more descriptive and written with more passion for the subject. Phillips has tried every recipe he recommends and in every way the book is more thorough. It is particularly thorough on mushrooms, where there are over 50 edible species widely available in the countryside.
In many ways mushrooms deserve their own book, and there are many to choose from. The Collins “Wild guide” to mushrooms and toadstools is a good example. It divides the subject into three categories — poisonous, inedible and edible . And provides all the details you need to safely and accurately identify which precise mushroom you are dealing with. Pocket-sized and plastic covered, it is thoughtfully designed to accompany walkers on foraging expeditions. An added bonus is the way that the fungi are also classified by season, so you can home in on an ID by time of year.
Simply click on the book covers to order those titles directly from Amazon
The above books were reviewed by Off-Grid, but all comments below are editorial and customer reviews posted on the
Amazon.com & Amazon.co.uk websites …
“Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide”
by Thomas S. Elias & Peter A. Dykeman . US edition.
Also a UK edition A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants
“This books shows, in an easy to understand format-in my opinion-a person how to identify wild edible plants that they can harvest (some even in their own backyard). It shows photos of the plants, tells you if there is a poisonous look alike plant, how to identify them, common locations of the plants, and how to prepare them for a meal. If someone wants to learn more about eating plants that grow in the wild, this book is the one I think should be in their library.”
“A Taste of Nature: Edible Plants of the Southwest and How to Prepare Them” by Kahanah Farnsworth
“Although there are many books that explain how to locate and identify wild, edible plants, few describe what to do with them after they are harvested. A TASTE OF NATURE is not only a complete guide to range, habitat, nutritional and medicinal facts, and identification of common wild plants, it also has useful information about how to prepare them. This book contains seventy-five delicious recipes that are designed to be healthful, nutritious, and easy to prepare. Included is a detailed drawing of each plant for easy identification. A sixteen-page color section illustrates every plant in the book. There is also is a section on poisonous plants to prevent misidentification.”
You can also find related articles on the CHEFS ON THE WEB site at http://www.chef.co.uk
“The Wild Food Gourmet: Fresh and Savoury Food from Nature”
by Anne Gardon
“Consider this visual treat a must-own for serious hobbyists and would-be authors. Anne Gardon’s superlative photography of edible wild plants and the gourmet dishes and drinks she has created, along with her excellent text, and a eye-pleasing design by Gillian Tsintziras, make this Firefly book a delight to behold. Here’s an excellent gift for a friend who shares your love of foraging. I’ll bet that once you see it, however, you’ll want your own copy. If I owned a coffee table, it would be THE edible wild plant book that I would put out for company to look at. Anne is the author, Sarah Weber the editor.”
“Foraging New England: Finding, Identifying, and Preparing Edible Wild Foods and Medicinal Plants from Maine to Connecticut” by Tom Seymour
Also said to be a UK edition
“New England’s diverse geography overflows with edible plant and animal species. Through the seasons, this forager’s paradise offers a continually changing list of wild, harvestable treasures. From Beach Peas to Serviceberries, Lamb’s-Quarters to Lady’s Thumb, Hen of the Woods to Mugworts, Foraging New England guides you to the edible wild foods and healthful herbs of the Northeast. Organized by environmental zone, this valuable reference guide will help you identify and appreciate the wild bounty of New England. Inside you’ll find: detailed descriptions of edible plants and animals; tips on finding, preparing, and using foraged foods; a glossary of botanical terms; eighty-seven color photos.”
“Alaska’s Wild Plants: A Guide to Alaska’s Edible Harvest”by Janice Schofield
UK edition: Alaska’s Wild Plants: A Guide to Alaska’s Edible Harvest
“An authoritative introduction to more than 70 of Alaska’s most common wild edible plants, with identification information and recipes.”
“The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook: A Forager’s Culinary Guide”
by Steve Brill
Also a UK edition :Wild Vegetarian Cookbook
“The most seriously committed vegans forage for their own foods, taking advantage of some of nature’s lesser-known but often intensely flavorful wild bounty. As “Wildman” Steve Brill points out in The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook, it takes a lot of education and plenty of experience to identify and make use of the bounty of the earth’s forests and seas. Foragers must learn to distinguish not only between the toxic and the edible but also must discern which among the edible plants are actually tasty and worth harvesting and cooking. Brill offers an encyclopedia of lore and plenty of identifying botanical data for wild foods, but more pictures would help sort out these thousands of plants from one another, especially in the perilous world of fungi identification. Recipes abound, and they follow vegan principles, using everyday oils, vinegars, and other basic ingredients.”
“The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America”
by Francois Couplan
UK edition :The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America: Nature’s Green Feast
“Although it lacks color pictures, it is by far the most complete listing of edible plants that I’ve ever seen (over 4000 plants covered) and tells you how to identify and use EVERY part of a plant from the Flower to the Leaf to the Bark to the Root (and any other part that may be usable) If your into long term survival or just want a snack on the trail, this book has it covered.”
“A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and central North America” by Lee Alan Peterson & Roger Tory Peterson (Illustrator)
UK edition :Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides)
“This book is very well written. it contains over 400 drawings and 78 color photos, to help in the identification of the mentioned plants. Each entry contains information on habitat, when they flower, a description and the uses. Also contains any applicable warnings. The line drawings are very accurate and are more than enough, when coupled with the descriptions, to be able to identify just about any plant. But if you have any doubts, check the color photos. Also, at the back of the book, it contains the various types of plants divided up into habitat, and then each habitat divided into what plants can be harvested there during various seasons.”
“A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America” by James A. Duke & Steven Foster
“With more than 300 photos, this new edition shows how to identify more than 500 healing plants. Descriptive text includes information on where the plants are found, as well as their known medicinal uses. An index to medical topics, symbols next to plant descriptions, and organization of plants by colors all make this an essential guide to understanding the traditional medicinal uses of the plants around us. More than three hundred new color photos illustrate their flowers, leaves, and fruits. An index to medical topics is helpful for quickly locating information on specific ailments, from asthma and headaches to colds and stomachaches.”
“A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants : North America North of Mexico” by Roger Caras & Steven Foster
“Before you dash out into the woods and pick some plants you think are edible, you might want to get this book and know definitely what will kill you, or really mess up your body. Excellent info, bright color pictures, and written for an easy understanding, this book should be in any nature enthusiast’s library, right next to Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, possibly the best plant identification guide around.”