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4.5 out of 5 stars
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4.5 out of 5 stars
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on 5 February 2006
This is a 2004 version and worthy addition to the very popular and pocket-sized Collins Gem series. ISBN 0-00-718303-8. Food For Free - A Fantastic Feast of Plants and Folklore.
The book starts with an introduction by the author Richard Mabey. It then has short sections titled 'Roots', 'Green Vegetables', 'Herbs', 'Spices', 'Flowers', 'Fruits', 'Making Jellies and Jams' and 'Nuts'. They include general advice, observations and uses. The main section of the book is given over to identification, with at least two pages per entry. An interesting section follows titled ’Picking Rules’ which gives advice on how to pick correctly how to stay safe. The last section before the main body of the book is a summary calendar which groups the picking times for entries into a colour-coded calendar - very useful as a quick reference.
Every entry is accompanied with a drawing. Most of the drawings are excellent, but one or two are a little small and thus less detailed. Fortunately, almost every entry also has a photograph. The combination of colour drawings and colour photographs is what makes this little pocket book a true 'gem'. If the drawing is a little weak, the photo will be excellent and vice-versa. Almost fool proof.
Each entry starts with the common English name (Latin is in small type at the top of the page)a colour illustration and description. Taking Beech (at random), it says: 'Widespread and common throughout the British Isles, especially on chalky soils. A stately deciduous tree, with smooth, grey bark, to 40m (130ft). Leaves: bright green, alternate, oval. Flowers: male drooping, stalked heads; female in pairs. Fruit: four inside a prickly brown husk, Sept-Oct. When ripe this opens into four lobes, this liberating the brown, three-sided nuts.' The illustration depicts a leaf, spring twig with unopened buds, an opening husk revealing nut inside and bare nut. The article continues with headings; Harvest/Pick, Uses, Beech Nut, Beech Nut Oil, Beech Leaf Noyau. The photo at the end of the entry is a good close-up of a twig with a cluster of husks. (I didn’t know, for example, that ‘fresh from the tree Beech leaves are a fine salad vegetable, as sweet as a mild cabbage though much softer in texture’.)
The book, in line with its title, covers Plants and Trees, Fungi, Seaweeds and Shellfish. There is a glossary at the end and a page devoted to further reading. There is a List of Recipes and finally an index of entries in common English or Latin.
There aren't that many books devoted to 'British' wild foods so to find one which lists over 100 edible plants, berries, mushrooms, seaweed and shellfish is most welcome. Given the true pocket size measurements of the Collins Gem series of books, the price of a fiver (£4-99) and the quality of each entry, this is as good as it gets. Obviously not a benchmark reference work or field-guide, but at least this fits in the pocket - which is the main purpose of such books, isn't it? Five stars!
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on 10 August 2005
I got this book from my local library but loved it so much that I am going to get my own copy for future reference. After reading this book I went out for a walk and picked some blackberries, elderberries & sloes, which were growing in abundance some 10 minutes from my house! This book opened my eyes to stuff that I usually overlook in the hedgerows and provided me with some useful information about the type of plants, fruits and fungi that are edible (and perhaps not always well known), with recipe ideas too. It encouraged me to venture out into the fresh air and walk in local woodland, along river banks and fields etc. I even found some of the highly recommended Parasol mushrooms! Wonderful book and really, really useful. Worth every penny.
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Richard Mabey is the author of several books on flora and fauna so he is well qualified to write a book such as this. Over one hundred edible plants are featured together with recipes and other culinary information. There is also information on how to pick and when to pick and the regulations on picking which are very important. As I come from farming stock I have to say that food for free does not mean going into a field and digging up a few potato plants or for that matter cabbages.

There are plenty of hedgerow plants available for free, if you are prepared to look for them and suffer the odd few scratches. There is nothing better than a bowl of freshly picked blackberries or raspberries, if you can get them home before they are all eaten.

Plants that are edible are fully illustrated and described and the recipes are both old and new. Other fascinating information is how the plants have been used through the ages. An ideal book for all those who are nature lovers and like the idea of something for nothing. I think the last part covers 99.9% of the population.
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on 1 June 2013
This is a neat little reference manual...but it does depend heavily on having done alot of independent research (to the point where you wonder why someone who had done the necessary research would need this pocket guide).

My case in point is that I received this pocket guide and immediately went to work in the woods nearby trying to identify local wild herbs/plants that were edible.

I came across what I had previously thought of as an innocuous, useless weed - it seemed to correspond with 'Sweet Cicely' in the book..picture looked good, tied in with the description...looked like I had found easily a common plant that I could make use of.

Now, as stated, I'm not an expert so I went on to double-check (thankfully) and it seems like this plant is easily confused with hemlock (from what I can gather you can tell hemlock from the red speckles on the stalks).

I'd really like to regain confidence in this little pocket manual...please tell me if I'm mistaken about the whole hemlock thing.

I think I will be sticking with dandelion recipes until I get another reference manual which includes 'false friend' warnings about plants & fungi that need to be identified and avoided despite seeming similar to those listed.
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on 7 January 2013
Review by my girlfriend since it's her book.

This book was a Christmas gift, and I'm really pleased with it.

First thoughts: The book is beautiful Heavy, glossy and sturdy, printed and bound to a high quality. The hard cover is lovely to look at, with the text stamped into the cover rather than merely printed. The book look impressive and is an attractive addition to my bookshelf.

Next thoughts: The interior is lovely, as well. Every food item described is illustrated with high quality, glossy photos that display the plant in its natural setting, showing leaves, fruit/flowers and stem clearly. It would be very difficult to misidentify anything with this book.

More detailed thoughts: The descriptions given for different plants are very thorough, and include smell for fragrant plants as well as appearance. The mushroom section is fantastic for newbies to mushroom foraging - the safest and most difficult to misidentify mushroom varieties are offered, and in the few cases where there are similar poisonous varieties, these are described and illustrated just as clearly, with large poison symbols to make it very clear what to avoid. There is also a very nicely arranged index at the back, where all the plants in the book are illustrated with the usual, old-fashioned colour sketches. This is great, as if you come across a plant you don't know, you can skip to the index, find a similar-looking sketch and it will refer you to the main page, where you can compare the plant to the detailed photos and descriptions more thoroughly. A very clever and very efficient way of arranging things.

I have only two criticisms.

One: This book is far too large and heavy to take out when foraging. It is such a thorough and clear book I absolutely would want the information it contains with me when foraging, but it is a little dense to keep pulling out of a backpack, supporting against a rock, flipping open, etc.

Two: Almost none of the plants have a time-of-year with them. Some of them do, but in other cases I'm left with no idea what sort of time of year I can expect to find a given plant at its best. It'd be very handy to have that.

**Overall**
A really great book. Ideal for beginner foragers, especially people who are nervous about picking mushrooms but want to try it. Very informative, well presented and laid out in an intuitive, sensible and useful manner.
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on 15 September 2003
A delightful, colourful book that is full of the countryside with amazing recipes of the wild flowers and weeds that have been photographed and inset on every page. He has created a new space for the English seasonal climate and the accompanying display of wild, ornate colourful flowers that have all got there culinary uses, some known like chicory others not so well known like Bladder Wrack Popweed. There are 21 daring recipes for you to try each containing somekind of wild flower or herb. The overall review of this book is that if you are in love with the countryside you will definetely find this book very interesting.
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VINE VOICEon 26 October 2005
This is an excellent book but in the wrong package. Richard Mabey does a very good job of giving a seasonal guide to what's out there that you can have for free and does a respectable job of telling you how to use it. It falls short in two respects;

First it is not a comprehensive guide to any particular food source so while he may tell you how to cook ceps and morels and gives a reasonable guide to identifying it without this being a comprehensive guide to fungi you will never be entirely certain that what you have is a cep or a morel. To some extent that is true for everything he shows whether its fungi, nuts or fruit.

The second point is more significant for a book on foraging and is that this edition is simply too big to take into the field. In some ways this isn't a significant problem as because the book isn't comprehensive it wouldn't be the choice to take into the field with you.

This book falls somewhere between the coffee table forager's manual and Delia goes wild. Both of which might sound like criticisms but for someone who hasn't foraged wild food previously both of those would be the ideal starting point. If that's you then buy this book and read it but leave it at home when you go out and get a good field guide to take with you.

Note - since writing that review I have realised that this is available in several editions. Some of the other editions are small enough to use as a field guide.
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on 16 July 2012
Perfect for beginner or advanced. Big glossy pictures and everything you need to know. If you're learning from home there is nothing better. If you want to learn while outdoors, the food for free pocket version by collins gem is ideal. With both you have everything you need.
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on 24 July 2013
A useful book but the pictures and descriptions in these books never go far enough imho

I am not so interested in recipes for these plants, I could get another book to tell me all about the culinary delights of preparing one wild food or another, and yet the people that write these books appear to want to sidetrack the reader into preparing plants, rather than identifying them properly in the first place.

If I wanted a picture of what a plant looked like, I could just as easily compile my own book, by going on the net, typing in the plant name and print out the resulting picture.

What I do want and was expecting (foolishly) from this book, was a good description of how to identify each plant, and which lookalikes I should be aware of, and not an extremely brief description of the plant.

An example from the book.
Shady waste places, on roadsides and under hedges. Widespread throughout Europe. A hairless perennial forming large patches 30– 100 cm (12– 40 in) high. Leaves: finely toothed in groups of three at the end of the leaf stems. Flowers: white umbels on a creeping, hairless stem. June– Aug.
Mabey, Richard (2012-04-12). Food For Free (Collins Gem) (Kindle Locations 674-676). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

This is for ground elder, a plant that has many lookalikes some that are not good for you at all, but this book gives no insight into what differences to look for.
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on 3 April 2013
I first bought Food for Free as a paperback about forty years ago. At that time it was to help distract our kids on walks. (And incidentally, it remains brilliant for that. Except that the "kids" in question are now our grandchiildren!) It's clear, concise and not at all stuffy or condescending--so it's perfect for somebody who's thinking of, or just beginning, foraging. Also, it's clearly based on UK flora and fungi, so it's ideally suited for the UK forager.

This time round I bought the Kindle edition. (I still have the dog-eared original, though!) This makes it even more useful, because it's completely searchable. So, for example, if you find something with "arrow-shaped leaves", it's easier to work out whether it's sorrel, or bindweed.

If there was a Desert Island Books show, like Desert Island Discs, this would definitely be a book I'd want with me.

Happy foraging!
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