It wasn't so long ago that I declared to my fiance that, apart from a couple of titles left on my wishlist, I thought I had enough cookbooks. A reliable go-to book for weekday evening meals, thanks to the Hairy Bikers, tick. A selection of baking books containing much sugary deliciousness, courtesy of Mary Berry, The Hummingbird Bakery, Lily Vanilli, and Bea of Bloomsbury, tick. For a second there, I didn't think there was anything else that I could possibly need, but I was wrong, I needed a book that could offer me knowledge and brand new (old) flavours that I hadn't tried before, I needed The Forager's Kitchen by Fiona Bird.
If you are considering whether your current repertoire is looking at bit lack-lustre, and are tired of the fluffy recipe books full of pretty indulgences, then The Forager's Kitchen comes as a welcome alternative. The book offers a beginner's guide to foraging, alongside tasty recipes for you to create with a new selection of ingredients. It still includes all of the beautiful images of meals that you expect from a modern cookbook, but it also offers a whole treasure trove of useful information.
It's written beautifully, with a light, friendly, engaging tone, full of wit and intelligence. In the introduction Fiona mentions some of the positive aspects of foraging, such as the adventure to be experienced in the great outdoors, being in touch with nature, and obviously, free food. She adds words of wisdom and caution too, reminding us that a basketful of bounty is never guaranteed, that you will need to pick seasonally, and to be mindful of the needs of other foragers and wildlife, so not to be greedy and over-pick. She points out that foraging is about sharing and being considerate, and also respecting the rules and laws of the land, not trespassing, and being aware of which plant life is protected. She suggests where you can begin to search, the places best to avoid, and the kind of kit that you are going to need, whether it's outdoor clothing or kitchen appliances. Possibly of greatest importance, is the rule repeated throughout concerning misidentification, 'if in doubt, leave it out'. Fiona wisely points out that to help identify wild foods, you are going to need more specific, detailed field guides, and won't be able to rely on identification using this book alone. To help with this, there is a short list of recommended books at the back, as well as sites to visit to gather information on rules and laws that need to be upheld. There are lots of images of foragable foods in their natural locations, but some of them are small, hence the need for a detailed guide, and although not every recipe has a full page image, the ones that do are brightly lit, and just as enticing as you would expect.
The five chapters following the introduction are divided into types of foods or foraging locations: Flowers and Blossoms, Woodland and Hedgerows, Fruits and Berries, Herbs and Sea and Shore. Each chapter is then divided into specific plants/fruits/items. So for example in chapter one, after a swift introduction to edible flowers, we are introduced to Elder. We are given the latin name, various colloquial names, where it can be found, how to forage and gather, how it can be used, as well as some fun elder folklore (did you know that elder leaves are supposed to keep flies away, that is why cows like to shelter beneath it?).
Elderflower in particular, is one of my favourite things, so I was thrilled to see recipes for Elderflower pancakes, Vinegar, Wild Elderflower and Gooseberry Curd and of course, and of course Elderflower Cordial. Throughout all these sections there are additional 'Wild Notes' that make helpful suggestions on how to adapt the recipe in order to use other wild ingredients instead of the plant in question, for when it is out of season perhaps, or if you don't happen to like that particular flavour. The adaptations make it easy to use the book all year round, even though ingredients may only have a short foraging window. Chapter one also includes sections on Honeysuckle, Sweet Violet, Wild Cherry, Wild Rose, and an interesting selection of meadow flowers.
The recipes appear at first glance to be a little unusual, but are easy to follow, and there is an element of fun that runs throughout - the use of flowers in a recipe to introduce some colour changing magic occurs several times - but having said that it is an educational book that makes me feel like a knowledgeable grown-up (well a little bit at least). It is both fun and informative.
Other recipes that have caught my attention in particular include: honeysuckle jelly, custard tarts with violets, wild cherry blossom panna cotta, salted caramel wild hazelnut shortbread. The bilberry and hazelnut crumble cake and dulse pesto (with pasta) in particular look absolutely delicious.
The thing I found so delightful is that there is a great balance between the foragable foods that I expected to see (enter blackberries, hazelnuts, field mushrooms and elderflower), and those that I'm less familiar with, and have little idea what they would taste like, such as douglas fir, chickweed, clover and sweet cicely. Of course there are many things I have heard of, (thanks to the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall), but it is this balance between the foragable food you expect to see, and more unusual ones that help make the thought of foraging approachable to a beginner.
I love the idea of opening up a recipe book and not having any memory of the flavours I'm reading about to fall back on, it feels very exciting and adventurous. I can look up how to make salted caramel or a chocolate fudge cake in most recipe books, and have preconceived expectations. A book like this however, lets you dip a toe into the unknown, and Fiona is not only telling you what these new flavours are, but where they can be found and what to do with them. With over 100 recipes and a ridiculous amount of information this inspiring book represents value and adventure.
I think I've stumbled across something very special. We've all heard of foraging and free food and, although we love the concept, many of us (I assume) have no idea where to start and still make our weekly trip to the supermarket. This book scratches at the surface of lost instincts and digs around trying to reignite memories last seen with our distant ancestors. It feels like I should already know these things, but they've been long forgotten. You are likely to get cravings that you didn't know you could experience. You might not be able to pinpoint the flavours yet, but you know there is going to be something floral, or sharp, sweet, nutty, or reminds you of the sea, and those cravings must be directly linked to those buried foraging instincts, instincts that are tired of fluro-lighting, plastic bags and trollies and are crying out for something fresh.
Foraging does appear to be quite fashionable at present, but to get the most out of this book, you are going to have to show a bit of commitment to the cause. You will have get out there and give it a go, but seeing the tantalising possibilities presented so beautifully, it has given me the inspiration and motivation to get started.
The Forager’s Kitchen by Fiona Bird is published by Cico Books at £16.99 and is available from www.cicobooks.com
(images courtesy of Cico Books)