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Call of the wild.

Byline: By Jane Hall

It's not often people pass up the offer of something for nothing, but when it comes to free food it seems that most of us ignore the abundance right under our noses, as Jane Hall reports.

"There's no such thing as a free lunch," Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman was wont to claim.

Leastways, not in the cut-throat world that the intellectual godfather of the Thatcher and Reagan eras, inhabited.

A pity then the American-born high priest of monetarism didn't know Richard Mabey. If he had, he wouldn't have spent so much time popularising the phrase. And he might have saved himself some money along the way.

Richard is a dab hand at wangling himself a free lunch ( or breakfast, tea or dinner.

When it comes to gratis comestibles, Richard is as expert in his field as Milton ever was in his. But in Richard's world a "free lunch" will require bramble-scrambling, mud-larking and tree climbing for the sour, the insect-ridden and the misshapen.

Richard, you see, is a champion of inconvenience food.

For him a free meal means foraging and eating wild ingredients ( from woods, hedgerows and the seashore.

This isn't the latest must-do money-saving exercise the Norfolk author and broadcaster has just stumbled across.

Richard has been a fan of rummaging for ramson, probing for porcini and sifting for scallops for decades.

He's also been sharing with the public his antidote for the over-processed and over-packaged since 1972 when he published the first edition of Food for Free.

A practical illustrated guide to edible plants, fungi and lichens, seaweeds and shellfish, the latest edition contains 240 wild foods that even urbanites will be able to take advantage off, such as the abundant stinging nettle, curled dock and common mallow ( as happy growing on waste ground and roadsides as near the sea.

If this all seems a little too "earthy" for our modern supermarket-shaped tastes, it's worth taking a step backwards and remembering that all those vegetables we take for granted, from washed and pre-packed carrots and potatoes to frozen peas and ready-trimmed French beans, were once wild plants.

"What we buy and eat today is still essentially nothing more special than the results of generations of plant-breeding experiments," Richard says.

That may be the case. But while commercially grown watercress is not far removed from its wild cousin, are most of us going to go to the effort of finding a clean, fast-flowing stream to hunt out a bunch of this peppery salad favourite ( with the attendant risk of catching liver fluke?

Foraging for food is OK for the likes of eccentric celebrity TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and survival expert Ray Mears, but few of us would seriously consider getting down on our hands and knees to hunt out edible fungi or gather bags of acorns. Would we?

Not long ago the answer would have been a resounding No. But times are changing. Public concern about the natural environment and the quality and origin of our food has led to something of a backlash.

Richard says: "Michelin-starred chefs are now advocating the joys of marsh samphire, a native coastal plant that goes beautifully with another native wild food, fish. For the rest of us likewise: if plant breeding has been directed towards the introduction of bland, inoffensive flavours, and sacrificed much for the sake of convenience, those old robust tastes, the curly roots and fiddlesome leaves, are still there for the enjoyment of those who care to seek them out."

And many are now prepared to pull on their walking boots and head out into the highways and byways with their basket in search of the wild cabbages that still grow on coastal cliffs or the wild parsnips that flourish on waste ground.

There is not normally any economic necessity to these forays. It's as much a fun-way to get some fresh air and exercise ( perhaps involving the whole family ( testing an individual's ingenuity in tracking down wild food on which they can then test their confidence in the kitchen.

A number of these modern day foragers will undoubtedly be clutching a copy of Richard's pocket-sized tome.

When it was first published, Food for Free immediately struck a chord with the post-60s Hippie generation seeking alternative ways of living. Ahead of its time, it rekindled the lost art of gathering our food from natural, wild sources. Thirty-five years on, the book has caught up with itself.

Now in its third edition, it has sold a staggering 500,000 copies ( more than 9,000 in the last six months of 2006.

The interest in wild food is, if you will excuse the pun, mushrooming.

In fact, wild foods have become popular enough to go commercial. There are now professional gatherers supplying the restaurant trade. A Scottish brewery is using Argyllshire heather tops to flavour one of its ales, and nettle leaves are being used to wrap Cornish Yarg cheese.

Wild fungi have experienced the most dramatic change in fortunes, though.

"After centuries of local suspicion, they've been embraced by the supermarket," Richard says.

"One autumn I found 24 British species on sale in Harrods."

Richard admits he has become "more of a wayside nibbler than a heavy forager these days." For him the thrill is in "serendipitous findings, small wayside gourmet treats. I relish the shock of the new taste, that first bite of the unfamiliar apple. Reed-stems, sucked for their sugary sap. Sun-dried English prunes, from a damson bush strimmed while it was in fruit.

"Often it is literal apples, wayside wildings sprung from thrown-away cores and bird droppings. They seem to catch everything that's exhilarating about foraging: a sharpness of taste, and of spirit; an echo of the vast, and mostly lost, genetic diversity of cultivated fruits, a sense of place and season.

"I've found apples that tasted of pears, fizzed like sherbet, smelt like quince."

There is, Richard says, so much along these lines that could be said in favour of wild foods.

"Some of them are delicacies, many of them are still abundant, and all of them are free. They require none of the attention demanded by garden plants, and possess the additional attraction of having to be found.

"I think I would rate this as perhaps the most attractive single feature of wild food use. The satisfactions of cultivation are slow and measured. They are not at all like the excitement of raking through a rich bed of cockles, of suddenly discovering a clump of sweet cicely, of tracking down a bog myrtle by its smell alone.

"There is something akin to hunting here: the search, the gradually acquired wisdom, about seasons and habitats, the satisfaction of having proved you can provide for yourself. What you find may make no more than an intriguing addition to your normal diet, but it was you that found it.

"And in coastal areas, in a good autumn, it could be a whole three-course meal."

* The new edition of Food for Free by Richard Mabey will be published by Collins on May 9 at pounds 12.99.

Food For Free isn't just an illustrated guide to the seasonal, fresh, local and unusual produce that can be found in our rural and urban landscapes.

It also contains numerous recipes using everything from field mushrooms to horseradish, dock leaves, hawthorn, elderflower and puffballs, that bring out the exotic flavours and aromas of wild food.

Here are a couple of recipes from Richard Mabey's book using easily foraged ingredients.

MUSHROOM PATE

200g (8oz) field mushrooms

1 onion

1 tomato

1 rasher of bacon (optional)

1 egg, beaten

Seasoning to taste

Chop the mushrooms with the onion, tomato and bacon. Cook slowly in a little oil until the mushrooms begin to sweat, and simmer for 10 minutes. If they give off a great deal of liquid, drain some of this away.

Cool and transfer to a blender and blitz until the mixture is smooth.

Return to the pan, add seasoning and herbs to taste, perhaps a pinch of chilli powder, and finally the beaten egg.

Stir over a low heat until the texture thickens.

Refrigerate for at least 12 hours, when it will acquire the consistency of a pate, and a surprisingly meaty taste.

ROSE PETAL JAM

Extensively eaten in the Middle East, especially with yoghurt, this recipe is from Turkey. You will only need to prepare a small potful, as it is exceedingly sweet. And only supplement your wild petals with those from garden roses if it is absolutely necessary to make up the quantity: the thick, fleshy petals of the garden damasks are very difficult to reduce to jelly.

2 cups wild rose petals (crammed down fairly tightly)

2 cups sugar

1 cup water

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 tbsp orange juice

Dissolve the sugar in the water, and add the lemon juice and orange juice.

Make sure that the rose petals are free of insects and discard any withered ones.

Stir the petals into the liquid and put the pan over a very low heat. Stir continuously for about 30 minutes, or until all the petals have "melted".

Cool a little, pour into a small glass jar and cover.

Some wild foods available in the coming WEEKS

MAY

Carrageen

Dandelion flowers

Hop shoots

Morel

Sea beet

St George's mushroom

Stinging nettle

Woodruff

JUNE

Elderflowers

Marsh samphire

Ramsons

Shaggy inkcap

Wild rose flowers

Wild strawberry

Wild thyme

JULY

Blackcurrant

Chanterelle

Field mushroom

Giant puffball

Gooseberry

Lime blossom

Raspberry

Redcurrant

Wild marjoram
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 4, 2007
Words:1585
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