Reviewing 'The River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook' by John Wright
John Wright's River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook is as good an introduction to foraging wild food as you can get. It's 250 pages of intelligent description, sharp photographs and funny stories. Top line is, if you are looking to start foraging wild food in the UK, or know someone who is, I believe that Hedgerow is one of the best books you can get.
When walking around in the countryside, beach or local forest, it can be intimidating to realise the number of wild plants and berries there are. This is especially true when you start out foraging as it's hard to know exactly where to begin learning.
One of the best things you can do is to sit down with a good foraging book and immerse yourself in this world. And one of the best books to do that with is John Wright's 'Hedgerow'. Far from being simply a reference book, it is more of a guide, written in a charming way as if he is talking to you over a pint in the local.
The book is unashamedly enthusiastic about foraging and everything that goes with it. Before you even get to the plants, there are sections dedicated to where to look, when to look and even regarding conservation and the law. There's also an introduction from Hugh-Fearnley-Whittingstall, who gave John his big TV break on River Cottage (which is a firm favourite in my household!).
It all adds up to an interesting introduction to what you are about to do and gets you prepared for finally hiking out and picking some juicy berries.
What use is a guide book if it can't guide you? Images need to be clear and allow you to see the main identifying features of any plant or fruit. Fortunately, the images here do just that. Depending on what is being described, the image may focus on the fruit up close, or the leaves, or the habitat in which you'll find the plant growing. If the description is of a group of similar plants, for example wild roses like Dog Rose and Field Rose, there are individual photos for each.
The descriptions themselves follow a set format of:
Description: a paragraph briefly describing the look of the plant Habitat: where you are likely to find it, e.g. hedgerows, woodland etc... Distribution: where in the UK you are most likely to find it Season: what time of year you will be able to find the plant.
Afterwards, it's freeform text with John usually going off on one with a great story about the plant. It might be some of his own personal dealings with the plant, or a bit of history of how it came to our shores. If the plant is similar to other plants, then he's sure to mention it, and be specific about how to tell them apart.
There's the occasional brief recipes in these sections, and how best to make use of the plant. Can you eat it raw? How best to cook it? What other uses might it have? It tells you everything you need to know in order to confidently identify the plant.
There's also a section on poisonous plants that you might see whilst out on your forage in the UK. This is a section that is definitely worth reading if only to get an idea of what to stay away from.
It highlights some of the most common plants that a UK forager might come across and perhaps mis-identify, for example Lords and Ladies or Hemlock. Knowing what not to eat is just as (of not more so) important than what to swallow.
The book finishes with a few of the finest foraging recipes around that use some of the plants mentioned in the book. Elderflower cordial is a forever-popular creation, and when you get it right, and this recipe produces one of the most delightful foraged drinks there is. John also gives recipes on, for example, dandelion jelly marmalade and chestnut florentines. The recipes sound so delicious that can give you the inspiration to go out and forage for that particular plant!
This book is great. It's an extremely handy field guide, as well as a good read to sit down with, along with a coffee and cake. For beginners and experienced foragers alike, there's something here for everyone. And it's hardy - I've had my copy both in the house and out in my foraging knapsack since I got it back in 2010 and although there is slight wear and tear it's all in one piece and ready for more adventures! You can buy the River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook on Amazon here. And you definitely should.