I have my dog to thank for my growing interest in foraging. Every day when we go for our walk, he sniffs out doggy smells while I fossick in the verges looking for edible weeds. Some of the leaves, flowers and young seeds pods I find are nibbled en route, some are rejected (I can’t see why you’d bother eating gorse flowers) and the rest end up in salads and sitrfrys.
The foraging trend is growing apace. I’ve written two features this year with foraging chefs Anthony North and Bill Manson (both for NZ Life & Leisure) and I’ve recently received a review copy of the latest book on the subject, A Forager’s Treasury by Wairarapa-based writer and researcher Johanna Knox. It joins four similar books on my bookshelf and it’s easily the best for my purposes.
Having said that, it is sadly let-down by poor presentation – cheap paper, messy layout, no index and insufficient illustrations – and that really is a shame because the content is excellent. It’s informative, well-researched, insightful and full of inspiring ways to use wild plants.
The first half of the book is dedicated to identification and general information on foraging. Common poisonous plants such as hemlock are listed (but not illustrated) in the introductory section and this is followed by a large section on edible ‘treasures’. These plants are divided into families (alliums, legumes, etc), which is a useful way of looking at things, assuming some knowledge of plants. Knox provides excellent information on each one – how to find them, what they taste like and what to do with them – but the few line drawings included aren’t sufficient to inspire confidence in a new forager. When it comes to identification there really is no substitute for photographs.
The second half of the book investigates the many ways in which you might use foraged plants: medicinal and cosmetic but most of all edible. I would buy the book for this part alone with its handy tips and collection of inspiring but sensible ways to eat weeds.
I say ‘sensible’ because I’ve seen some frankly weird recipes in similar books on wild food, recipes that come across as desperate attempts to find a use for a foraged ingredient just because it is foraged. Knox, on the other hand, comes across as a good cook with a well-tuned sense of what goes with what and an understanding that every ingredient must earn its place. Often that place is in a salad, a dip or a sandwich and there are plenty of ideas for these.
There are also some good basic recipes that come with loads of variations. I’m keen to follow her suggestions for infused syrups and herbal teas, and I’m intrigued by the idea of making pannacotta with cream that’s been infused with scented pelargonium leaves or wild jasmine.
I particularly like the section on wild salads because it not only lists all the likely candidates but divides them up according to texture and flavour. Some plants are mustardy, some are bitter or sour, and some may be crunchy while others are soft. It’s all useful information when it comes to creating a well-balanced salad.
And when it comes to salads, I love the idea of tossing lemony-flavoured oxalis leaves through a creamy potato salad. I don’t even have to walk the dog to find this common weed, my garden is full of it. I’m also well stocked with onion weed and thanks to this book I’m actually looking forward to the spring flush when I’ll have plenty of flowers to deep-fry in tempura batter.
A Forager’s Treasury, Johanna Knox. Allen & Unwin RRP $36.99