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Richard Mabey on 40 years of Food for Free

PUBLISHED: 09:33 05 October 2012

Richard Mabey

Richard Mabey

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Richard Mabey's classic foraging guide Food for Free is 40 years old this year. RACHEL BANHAM spoke to the author about what he describes as 'very much a Norfolk book'.

When Richard Mabey’s Food for Free was first published in 1972, he could scarcely have imagined that 40 years later it would never have been out of print.

A special edition of the book has been published this year to mark the anniversary. It details more than 200 types of food that can be gathered and picked in the wild.

The fully-revised text is accompanied by photographs, new recipes, and practical information on identifying, collecting, cooking and preparing these foods, as well as history and folklore.

Richard recalled how he spent time on the north Norfolk coast in the late 1960s, with a friend who had a converted lifeboat moored at Blakeney. “I think it was up there that I kind of plugged into the fact locals along the coast were still doing foraging,” he said. “Especially mysterious and exciting was the discovery of samphire which of course is now in every restaurant in the country, but then was virtually unknown and just eaten by a few locals along the coast.

“I got very fascinated by the tradition of having and eating that, and also a lot of the other stuff that people were eating up there like the wild spinach that grows along the sea walls.”

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He added: “I set out on a journey and realised that there was a potential for really quite an original book here which was both a kind of social history of eating on the wild, but also a do-it-yourself guide to it.”

At the time Richard was living in the Chilterns, but Norfolk was his second home. From about 1968 he rented a cottage in Blakeney.

“A lot of the book was written up there,” he said. “It’s very much a Norfolk book.”

Richard, who now lives in the Waveney valley, believes that foraging can bring us closer to nature, although he thinks this is probably sometimes over-sentimentalised, something he said he is probably guilty of too.

“I don’t think that you go out foraging and suddenly have a semi-religious rapture having become a half-wild creature yourself, but I think that it’s certainly very satisfying, the hunting-out bit of actually knowing what to look for, where to go, and you learn about the relationship between weather and fruiting patterns and soil types and the kind of vegetation that grows in particular sorts of places,” he said. “You become, I think, wiser, hedgewise if you like, about the way that the landscape works in terms of the vegetation it provides.”

Richard explained that wild food introduces new kinds of tastes and textures into the ingredients of conventional cooking, which he believes is one of the reasons why it has been so attractive to restaurant chefs. Foraging has a long history. Richard explained how Lilly Wigg, a shoemaker from Yarmouth, wrote what was probably the first foraging book in Britain in the 18th century. Then, in the Second World War, the government promoted foraging as a way of supplementing the British people’s diet. The Ministry of Food published the pamphlet Hedgerow Harvest, which Richard described as “a wonderful, sort of miniature Food for Free”.

“That was the pulse of interest, it was also the pulse of necessity before mine,” he said.

“Thirty years elapsed and I picked up the baton. I was in the forefront of the new wave but, as I say, it had been going one for two or three centuries before me.”

Richard said that the longevity of Food for Free is “a bit of a surprise”, but recalled how it was clear in the 1970s that British people were becoming interested in food, at the same time as they began to rediscover their concerns about the countryside.

He said: “To bring the two together, which is perhaps the original thing that I did… to produce a book about wild food which was also in some ways an ecological argument or book, that was original. It hadn’t been done in any of the previous titles. “As soon as those two things were put together I think it was inevitable that it would continue to be a subject of great interest to people.”

This year, following the wet weather, Richard recalled how he found a large group of giant puffball fungi in late April, something which wouldn’t normally be seen before September. “It was a wonderful thrill to come across those and get one home and have an extremely unseasonal fungal feast in the early wet spring,” he said. “For me, I suppose - decades on - the kick I get is of spotting something which I didn’t know was there.”

He added: “You can do new things with wild foods that you can’t do with other foods, but then again we’re getting wild food from across the planet at the moment… wild tropical spice fruits over the counter. We’re all second-hand foragers now. We’re living off the products of foragers on other continents.”

Richard loves cooking, and enjoys experimenting with wild foods in the kitchen. “Because you have different textures and different tastes, you can do different things,” he added.

He said that he supports local food producers “vehemently” and “in every possible way”.

“There is a lot of opportunities for buying local. There is the opportunity to try foods from other parts of the world as well,” he added. “I think a judicious balance is the answer.”

■ The 40th anniversary edition of Food for Free is published by Collins.

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