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14 September 2022

Fifty years of Richard Mabey’s Food for Free

How the author’s 1972 guide to foraging anticipated today’s appetite for local, seasonal and sustainable eating.

By Alice Vincent

When he was a teenager, Richard Mabey’s summers comprised the kind of earthy activities that now inspire fancy anorak catalogues. “We would camp out on a converted lifeboat and run wild on the marshes, looking for birds and just watching the tide,” he explains from his home in Norfolk, not far from where he and his friends used to roam. “And we discovered that the locals had these curious habits of eating all kinds of things from the seashore. Wild fennel, a wonderful thing called sea spinach, occasionally sea kale. But samphire was the chief crop.”

It was marsh samphire – the strange, salty edible succulent that rises at calf-height above salt marshes every summer – that opened Mabey’s eyes to what could be eaten from the landscape around us. Now, it can be found everywhere from gastropub menus and artisanal fishmongers to Sainsbury’s, where it lies limp in expensive little plastic boxes, but in the late Sixties marsh samphire was a food known only to the locals who foraged it.

Food for Free, Mabey’s first book – an in-depth but practical guide to foraging – did considerable work in introducing samphire to plates across the country and beyond. Inspired by those Norfolk summers, he published it in 1972. Half-a-century later and it’s still considered a foraging bible: having sold an estimated one million copies, it’s never been out of print. Mabey, now 81, considers it “a kind of pension”.

While the book’s origin story of gangly, outdoorsy young men snacking from the seashore is charming, Mabey gathered more research from books than he did the locals. He has some good yarns: a bus driver nicknamed Crow re-diverted the usual route during one particularly unusual meteorological autumn because “some of the coastal marshes were so covered with field mushrooms it looked like it had snowed. So Crow stopped the bus and got everyone out to gather the mushrooms before they proceeded to the next stop,” Mabey recalls, laughing.

Generally, though, he says that “there was disappointingly less on the ground than in the books”, to the extent that “the whole incentive for the book was that this living tradition was getting pretty defunct”. In snaffling and munching, testing and crunching, Mabey kept it alive.

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His real fascination lay in unearthing foraging discoveries from the distant past: “tracking down long habits which had virtually died out”. Mabey looked to books such as Flora Diaetetica by Charles Bryant, published in 1783, the first to discuss extensively foraging both in the field and in the kitchen. It includes advice that native rosebay willowherb stems (not the North American ones that line our railways and verges now) were “as good as asparagus”. Then there was the wartime government’s Hedgerow Harvest of 1943, which Mabey calls “a superb booklet”, filled with recipes with “epicurean touches”: if you’re making sloe jam, crushing a few berry stones heightens the aniseed flavours.

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Mabey’s distinction with Food for Free was to eat everything not deemed off-limits by a 1950s missive from the Ministry of Agriculture, British Poisonous Plants. “Anything that wasn’t in that book or obviously disgusting, I gave a turn to,” he explains. “I was able to add 15 to 20 plants that have probably never been eaten before to the list.” Among them was sea purslane, the flat-leaved green now available to buy through organic veg-box company Riverford and, as Mabey says, “on the table at any fine-dining restaurant that serves what are called ‘sea vegetables’”. Less successful were his adventures with wild carrot and parsnip roots. “Both of them were beyond the pale as far as eating was concerned,” he says. “But I did my duty and gave them a whirl.”

He was inspired by Dorothy Hartley, the pioneering researcher and anthropologist who toured England by bicycle in the 1930s collecting traditional recipes and customs. Published in 1954, Food in England, like Food for Free, has never been out of print. “She’s a great hero,” says Mabey. “I think that was probably my main inspiration, both for her wonderful, reckless style of writing and of living. So, you know, I can’t claim to have invented a book about wild foods; it was just probably the first book in the next wave.”

Mabey’s introduction to the 1972 edition of his own book seems strikingly prescient now. “Maybe foraging can contribute even more, in today’s ecologically threatened world,” he writes. “If plants like wilding apples could contribute to the restoration of lost cultivated varieties, maybe, conversely, the restoration of cultivated land to wild, forageable land could build up new natural ecosystems.”

It’s an argument in line with the current rewilding movement. The book has tracked several waves of foraging fashion since. Marlow Renton, 45, runs the foraging education company Wild Food UK, and has been using the guide for many of them. “I can’t remember a conversation with a new forager during the Eighties or Nineties where Food for Free wasn’t mentioned.”

With the millennium, foraging became artisanal. In 2003, Noma opened in Copenhagen. Now boasting three Michelin stars, its chef René Redzepi was revolutionary in recreating Nordic cuisine with foraged food. By 2011, the Financial Times was reporting on UK Michelin-starred chefs leading their teams on foraging expeditions in Kent for chickweed and sea beet, while the Guardian was decrying Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver for the ecological footprint of their well-publicised mushroom hunts. A decade on, and the emphasis on local, seasonal and sustainable eating has kept foraged food on the menu at high-end restaurants.

Mabey believes this approach to wild food is a good one. “What I really like about the fine-dining tradition is that they use minute quantities of wild foods,” he says. “You won’t find half a kilo of chanterelles on your plate. It’s just a savour, and I think that is an ethical standard for the rest of us humdrum foragers.”

But Food for Free has endured during hungry times, too. Sales of the pocket edition tripled in the wake of the 2008 economic crash. Raynor Winn, author of the bestselling 2018 memoir The Salt Path, owned a copy of Food for Free while raising a family on a farm in Wales. But Mabey’s teachings took on a new vitality after she and her husband were made homeless due to a failed business deal, and, destitute, decided to walk the South West Coast Path as a means of survival. “We foraged whatever we could,” Winn, 59, says. “Richard’s book made me think of things we came across – odd little things, succulents mainly, like sea purslane, that we could slip into our packet noodles.”

With the cost-of-living crisis intensifying, Mabey emphasises that Food for Free was never intended as a survival guide. “It is strictly a leisure pursuit that will enhance your life, but not fill your pockets,” he says. “There are places, way out places in deepest Highland Scotland, where if you combine a lot of crustaceans with available berries you could cobble together a survival diet for a few weeks. But Surrey? No.”

It was years after publishing Food for Free that Mabey’s interest in ecology led him to understand that samphire wasn’t just delicious, but a vital part of marsh ecology. “If we gather too much of it, it upsets the plant’s ecological function.”

The new edition of Food for Free sees Mabey less determined to eat everything that won’t kill him and more focused on unearthing ecologically sustainable snacks. “I like serendipitous findings, windfalls, small wayside treats, a handful of sweet cicely seeds or wild redcurrants,” he writes. “The freedom of the bush” holds as much “liberty” as it does “responsibility”. Mabey says he’s “no longer flexible enough to get down at ground level”, but has developed a game with his grandchildren involving snatching wild, riverside blackcurrants from the edge of his electric boat. “That,” he grins, “is the paradigm for my foraging now.”

“Food for Free: 50th Anniversary Edition” is published by William Collins

[See also: From Jim Crace to Cosey Fanni Tutti: recent books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession