The Edible City: A Year of Wild Food by John Rensten
(Pan Macmillan, hardback, 293 pages. Out now.)
Review by Ben McCormick
Many years ago when I was first going out with my now ex-wife, she served me a salad that had flowers in it. I must have been unable to hide my sceptical, raising eyebrows, as she immediately insisted you could eat them. And though you could – they were nasturtiums after all – I’ve been wary of eating anything you can pick out of a park flowerbed ever since. So when a book on foraging in London arrived in the post for me to review, I felt the same sense of deep suspicion you usually reserve only for those times you have to deal with estate agents or answer the door to people who look like double glazing salesmen. Foraging’s exactly the kind of thing people who like Mumford & Sons think is cool (though probably haven’t done); presenting it as some kind of healthy, authentic, urban activity risked planting it firmly in the twee, homespun category that generally has me running for the trees.
I needn’t have worried. Comprising a year-long diary, recipe book and identification guide, this beautifully illustrated volume neatly sidesteps tie-dyed worthiness by dint of it being honest, fascinating and downright useful. Each of the 12 sections that make up the bulk of the book describes the author’s food-finding forays throughout the year, notes on where to go and what to look out for, the odd handy drawing to help identify plants and a few recipes to put those new-found ingredients to use. It doesn’t sound too complicated and, the more you read, the more you realise it isn’t.
The more I delve into each chapter, the more I start believing I might be able to do this. More importantly, with every passing chapter, the likelihood of my actually trying this foraging lark out for myself grows. This conviction is fortified by the repeated and highly necessary words of caution liberally sprinkled throughout. You can’t just wade into a park and grab handfuls of weeds willy-nilly; neither can you expect to be an expert immediately. Yes, there are nettles, rose-hips and other ingredients you think you wouldn’t be seen dead eating. But thankfully, there are helpful and delicious-sounding suggestions for using them instead of the kind of tasteless guff you’d lazily buy in a local supermarket without thinking. There’s also some sound philosophy included and a breathtakingly simple approach that could quite easily be applied to most things in life: start out small; add to your knowledge gradually; get better.
By the time the identification guide comes around, I’m a convert. I’ve already started bothering hedgerows armed with a cloth bag and a keen eye. I can now name plants I wouldn’t have looked at twice before reading this. As well as guiding me through the seasons and the bounty each brings – and opening up a whole world of greenery I can happily pick and eat for free – this charming book has given me bags of ideas and helped make me look at our capital city and myself in a different light. As the author states in the introduction: “If foraging teaches us anything, it’s to enjoy and celebrate what is available, not to hanker after what is not.” A worthy pursuit indeed.
Buy a copy of the book here.