WHERE THE WILD THINGS GROW
by David Hamilton (Hodder £20, 424pp)
Few activities are more on trend at the moment than foraging. It’s vegan, requires no nasty food miles or plastic wrappers, and it gives lockdown-crazed urbanites something to do when they are ‘in nature’ — or outdoors, as some of us still call it.
It also carries a rather thrilling undercurrent of danger; eat the wrong mushroom or berry and it could be curtains for you.
Foraging, of course, is not new. For millennia humans relied on eating leaves, roots, shoots, bark, sap, nuts, berries and seeds, moving with the seasons to places where food was plentiful.
David Hamilton has penned a book about the popular vegan trend of foraging, as he claims wherever you are in the UK is just a short walk away from a source of wild food (file image)
Today, as author David Hamilton remarks wryly, ‘it can sometimes seem as though every hipster from Hoxton to Houston has picked up a foraging basket’.
Hamilton was introduced to foraging in his early 20s and found that snacking on freshly picked gorse flowers or eating pasta with nettle sauce was far more interesting than the ‘spaghetti rings and crispy pancakes of my childhood’.
He recounts how, on a cycling holiday in the West Country, he supplemented his shop-bought rations with ‘field mushrooms, puffballs and jelly ears aplenty, along with plantain, nettles and mallow’. When he reached the coast, he dined on rock samphire, sea beet and wild cabbage picked from the cliffs.
Where The Wild Things Grow is divided into different landscapes, from conifer woodlands and urban parks to meadows, pastures and salt marshes. Hamilton maintains that wherever you are in the UK, even in the middle of a city, ‘you are almost certainly just a short walk away from a source of wild food’, and that learning to recognise what is edible will open up a new world of tastes and flavours.
Even in your garden, you are likely to have plenty of food hiding in plain sight. Hostas, grown for their luxuriant leaves (and famously loved by snails, alas) have the same fresh taste as asparagus, leek or lettuce when cooked.
Common garden weeds such as chickweed, ground elder, hairy bittercress and nettles are all edible in one form or another. Hamilton is particularly enthusiastic about the much-maligned nettle, ‘one of the most useful and nutritious plants around’, which is packed with vitamins, iron and calcium.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS GROW by David Hamilton (Hodder £20, 424pp)
Once it is cooked or dried, the nettle’s sting is neutralised. Nettle leaves, tossed with salt and oil and baked until they are brown and crunchy, apparently make delicious crisps.
Hamilton also sings the praises of the humble dandelion for providing ‘a welcome extra green in curries, soups and even pasta sauces’. His children eat dandelion flowers as a snack and the petals, simmered with sugar and honey, make a delicious syrup for ice cream.
One drawback of Where The Wild Things Grow is that there are no photographs and just a few line drawings, so it doesn’t offer much guidance to those of us who worry about accidentally poisoning ourselves.
Mushrooms, predictably, are fraught with danger. Field mushrooms have a lookalike, the yellow stainer, which has ‘very unpleasant effects’ if eaten, while the tasty velvet shank has a sinister doppelganger, the small and deadly funeral bell mushroom.
The golden rule, says Hamilton, is ‘be sure that what you are picking is what you think it is. You need to be 100 per cent certain, so if in doubt leave it out.’
Reading this chatty, informative book is an eye-opener about just how many edible plants there are.
I had no idea that the flowers of the majestic spring-flowering Magnolia grandiflora have a spicy, gingery taste, or that all deciduous cherries have edible flowers which can be made into a syrup or used in biscuits, cakes, and rice dishes.
I like the sound of baking a cake studded with fuchsia berries, but I draw the line at roasting my dahlia tubers, even if they do taste like potatoes. Some things are surely better left as flowers.