This morning, in the woods on Tooting Common, the sight of a young man plucking nettles and dropping them into a forage bag instantly reconnected me to my earlier life where ‘found food’ was a regular treat: wild parsnips, raspberries, blaeberries, angelica stems or water mint. Back in the 1970s, in my anti-consumerist hippy days, my home was sometimes an old Bedford van. Crammed with partner, three children, scruffy dog, cooking equipment, mattresses and quilts, this arthritic dragon – belching out smoke and small metal parts – transported us up and down the country lanes of Britain and Ireland. We enjoyed impromptu alfresco meals often gathered, picked or dug up from woods and field corners at dusk. ‘Dusking’ Richard Mabey calls it.
Back home from the Common, I found my well-thumbed copy of Mabey’s 1972 classic, Food for Free, and gave myself up, yet again, to the pleasure of rereading. His book is not just an aid to identification of Britain’s edible plants, it is also a compendium of nature lore, recipes and social history. ‘The plants’, he writes, ‘are a museum in themselves, hangovers from times when palates were less fastidious, living records of famines and changing fashions and even whole peoples.’
His entry for stinging nettle includes the note that Samuel Pepys enjoyed nettle ‘porridge’ on 25 February 1661. Nettles can also be made into soup, beer and herbal tea, or used as a kind of early spring kale, and with oatmeal and freshly fried bacon they make a delicious nettle haggis. Apparently, in Sweden, fibres from the stalks were once woven into cloth; and during the Second World War hundreds of tons of these spiteful yet surprisingly useful leaves were gathered for the extraction of chlorophyll and dyes for camouflage nets.
Born in 1941, Mabey grew up in Hertfordshire. His family home lay at the edge of hundreds of acres of abandoned parkland belonging to The Hall, a derelict building – once the home
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in