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The Forager Handbook – A Guide to the Edible Plants of Britain – Book review

19 June 2009
The Forager Handbook – A Guide to the Edible Plants of Britain – Book review

The Forager Handbook - A Guide to the Edible Plants of Britain
Miles Irving
Ebury Press £30
ISBN 9780091913632

For someone who had been looking forward to The Forager Handbook ever since Miles Irving did a great little double act with Danish chef Rene Redzepi at last year's Caterer Chef Conference, I can't help but feel a bit disappointed.

It's obvious that Irving knows his stuff. In fact, it's obvious he knows everything there is to know about wild food, from sand leeks to pink purslane. The trouble is, the sheer volume of Irving's knowledge has resulted in a text-heavy, illustration-light book.

It tells you everything you need to know about white dead-nettle or bastard balm or henbit - including its habitat and distribution and how to cook it - except for how to quickly and easily identify it.

With only a black and white (why black and white?) photo per plant, easy identification can be very hard, and, combined with the hefty size of the book, it seems it has not been designed for easy outdoor use.

Irving, or the publisher, or both, seems to have decided to create a reference book for the kitchen. For the urban chef, or the chef with no time to forage and a good supplier like Irving, this is fine. For the amateur forager it is not, and he or she will need an accompanying pocket book like Richard Mabey's timeless Food for Free to help identify plants.

However, where the book does come into its own is in the collection of superb recipes, courtesy of some of Britain's top-end chefs, showing that free food and expensive grub can complement each other well.

There's harira with mallow, tomato and coriander courtesy of Sam and Sam Clark, Rene Redzepi's turbot with herbs, and Mark Hix's red gurnard with Alexanders and three-cornered garlic, to name just three.

Despite the disappointment that expectation can bring, there's still much to commend The Forager Handbook and the exhaustive, if somewhat inaccessible, knowledge contained between its covers.

However, it may be the final word on what is available wild in the UK, but it's sadly not the last word in foraging books.

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