Every month this year I’ve been trying to read one of the unread books on my shelf, and to then decide whether it gets to keep its spot or needs to be set free to find a new home. For June I chose Nature’s Wild Harvest by Eric Soothill and Michael J. Thomas. It was published in 1983, and has been sitting on my bookshelf for three years, since I bought it in our local secondhand bookshop (which only opens on Wednesdays).
The blurb inside the front cover notes (as I did recently, for Lubera UK) that many people pick blackberries in late summer, but ignore wild food for the rest of the year as our diet increasingly turns towards processed foods.
The introduction reminds us that people revert to wild foods in times of hardship, and in WW2 tons of nettles, hawthorn berries and rosehips were collected to supplement the rationed diet. Richard Mabey can track the ebb and flow of the economy by the sales of his seminal book on foraging – Wild Food. This is in contrast, Wild Harvest notes, to the European experience, where wild foods are far more commonly consumed.
The introduction carries on which basic instructions on jam and jelly making, and gives instructions for making country wines – a pursuit I think of as quintessentially British in some ways, since our nearest European neighbours can grow grapes for their home brew efforts.
The book then divides into 4 seasonal chapters – Spring, Early Summer, Late Summer and Autumn, and assumes there is nothing of value to be foraged during the winter months. Each section deals with species alphabetically, the first of which is Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum). Most entries have a page or so of text and a line drawing; the sections are interspersed with a few pages of colour images.
Each entry has a description of the plant/fungus/occasional sea creature and the ecology of where is it naturally found. There are some historical notes about plant names, and uses, followed by instructions on how – and when – the various parts can be consumed. For the most useful plants there are recipes, often for preserves of some kind.
“During times of hardship and famine in Britain, charlock has been eaten by entire communities, since it is rich in vitamins A, B and C, and provides the necessary bulk and fibre so often missing in present-day diets. To prepare as a vegetable, only the younger leaves should be picked. Simmer them in salted water, strain and serve with a good knob of butter, as an excellent substitute for spinach.”
The result is a fascinating and eminently readable book, and one that offers not only an incentive to pop outside and see which edibles are growing in the local area, but gives tantalising glimpses into the history of foraging in the British Isles. For example, sea kale was so popular in the 18th century that large quantities were harvested and sent up to London for sale. Over-harvesting depleted the wild population, which has never recovered, even though sea kale has all but disappeared from British cuisine. Blackberries were used for navy blue dye into the 19th century.
And so Nature’s Wild Harvest gets to keep its place on the bookshelf, to form part of my wild food reference collection.