The Forager Handbook – A Review

There are a large number of wild food books in print in the UK, most of which I have reviewed and gone away a little saddened by the fact that they are often nothing more than rehashed information taken from such wild food classics as Richard Mabey’s Food For Free and Roger Phillips’ Wild Food.

And so last year when I learned that Miles Irving was producing a book on the wild foods of Britain, I was excited and also a little reticent.

I’d heard of Miles and knew that he supplied some of the top chefs with wild edible plants, but not having met or talked with him before I didn’t actually know anything about him or his depth of plant knowledge.

A couple of weeks ago I was sent a review copy of The Forager Handbook by his publisher, and I sat down to give it some attention. I didn’t get beyond the first few chapters before I realised that here was a book that rivaled Mabey’s Food For Free and personally I feel it surpasses it.

I mentioned this to Miles at his London book launch, to which he replied that Mabey’s book has inspired many of the current leading UK foragers on their plant quest. He told me that The Forager Handbook was written to update the work Mabey started back in the 1970’s, and to this effect he has produced a book that currently I would rate as one of the best in publication.

What I love about The Forager Handbook is the depth of knowledge and passion that he has for the forager’s art, for wild edible plants.

Here is a short quote from Miles that I think sums up this new revival in foraging…

“What I hope to communicate through this book is how integral foraging is to our make-up. Anyone who spends a little time learning to find and use wild food will soon understand what I mean: this is not an aspirational lifestyle choice, but a return to an ancient way of life that is part of who we are… What we have lost is the culture that gives a framework to these old ways and a vehicle for passing on knowledge of local plants and their uses…The plants are still here, and we are still here. Put people back ion touch with the plants, and the old relationship will revive…We shall soon find new ways of harvesting, stewarding and using these plants, and, in so doing, create a brand-new foraging culture in our time and in our land.”

The Forager Handbook, which took him over three years to write, is a hefty tome of a book weighing in at 400 pages and covering over 300 species grouped by family, similar to the way a good wild plant identification book is organised.

And that brings me to the content of the book. First off I want to make clear that this is NOT a plant identification book, and neither was this Miles’ intention. Certainly he offers a description as well as listing the plants distribution and habitat, however the main benefit of this book is the enormous amount of personal experience Miles brings to each plant in the form of Uses and Recipes. Benefits such as nutritional content (not all entries have this because there is still a huge amount of research that needs to be done).

Harvesting Notes: This is priceless information as Miles shows the wealth of knowledge he has, knowledge he has learned by immersing himself daily in wild edible plants, something that not many wild food teachers even do themselves.

This is the difference between knowledge and knowing. Knowledge is the academic facts and figures. Knowing is taking those head facts and “filling up your bones” by direct experience through eating and playing with plants on a daily basis. This is Miles’ gift to us in The Forager Handbook. His many years of personal eating and greeting these beautiful, life-giving and majestic plants.

The first 40+ pages take us through how to forage, learning to read the landscape, geology, soil pH and altitude, foraging and the law and the importance of sustainable foraging.

Then he moves on to how to use wild plants covering green leaves, stems and shoots, flowers, seeds, roots and on into the culinary uses of wild plants, whether it is soups, salads, sauces and dressings, sorbets and ices, vinegars, candying and beverages. The book is replete with healthy and skilful recipes and uses co-written with some of the most exciting chefs working in Britain today, including Sam and Sam Clark of Moro, Mark Hix (who writes the foreword) and Richard Corrigan.

Next are covered the foraging hazards: poisonous plants, toxic roots and the numerous plant poisons that exist. This leads into environmental contaminants such as places to avoid, pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, plus aquatic hazards.

There is a fantastic section covering the various terrain and listing the plants that can be found there. All possible landscapes are covered from woodlands, grasslands, hedges, roadsides, walls, waste ground, arable land, gardens, earthworks, cliffs, heaths, fens and bogs, ponds, lakes and rivers as well as coastal habitats.

The remainder, and the main focus of the book, goes to explore in-depth the hundreds of wild edible plants that you can find around Britain.

There is one single reason for getting a copy of The Forager Handbook… it is currently the most up-to-date book on wild plants of Britain. And believe me when I say that relying on old, outdated information such as Mabey’s Food For Free, which hasn’t been updated in many years and still lists toxic plants, means you are putting the health of yourself and your loved ones at risk.

Enjoy The Forager Handbook… for it will take you deep into the edible landscape and reconnect you to the ancient beauty that is forever Britain.

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