Wild Food by Roger Phillips
by Rhiannon James
Credit: Neil Turner
Roger Phillips should have grown up hating foraging. As a boy during the war, he was sent to the safety of Hertfordshire, and one of his duties at his village school, as food was short, was to pick nettle tops every morning to be boiled by the cook for lunch. “There were lots of babies and our job as the older children, being six or seven, was to feed them the nettle pulp. It wasn’t flavoured or anything so the babies weren’t necessarily all that keen on it and usually blew it straight back into our faces,” he recalls. Not the most inspirational of starts and yet he has gone on to become one of Britain’s leading experts on mushrooms and wild food in general.
Today, we are back in London, in the lovely Eccleston Square with its private communal garden, where Roger lives, to talk about urban foraging following the publication of the latest edition of his landmark book Wild Food.
Overtly a foraging guide, Wild Food is also much more than that. It’s a cook book, of the most brilliantly eclectic kind, with recipes from friends both at home and abroad, from herbals and household diaries. It’s also a history of British food and plants, written long before Dinner by Heston Blumenthal was garnering Michelin stars. It’s even pretty good on nutrition – did you know that fat hen is a relative of quinoa and packed with nutrients; rose hips are one of the richest natural sources of vitamin C; or that seaweeds have all the minerals we need in perfect balance? All in all, it’s a persuasive argument to get out and gather, and if at all possible, to eat it all out in the open air.
Asked if it’s really worth searching for wild delicacies amongst the towers and tarmac of the city, Roger says nothing but instead swoops towards the ground and straightening, produces a bunch of delicate white flowers with a flourish. “It’s called three-cornered leek in English because it has three-sided stems. It’s a weed from the onion family and it grows terribly well in London. The flowers are delicious with a very mild onion flavour and are therefore perfect in salads,” he says.
This plant is considered an infuriating garden invader by many, but thanks to Roger’s gardening philosophy (“I don’t believe in weeds”), it has been allowed to blossom in great drifts along with its native relative, wild garlic, through the garden which he has managed for the last 33 years.
“Because I’d written books on plants, they asked me to look after the square,” he says. This is a rather succinct summary of Roger’s career. Starting out in advertising and eventually becoming art director at Ogilvy & Mather in the 1960s (asked whether it was like Mad Men, he says “it was much more fun – we were madder, drunker, crazier”), Roger then became a freelance photographer and in the 1970s moved on to creating field guides and reference books on plants, illustrated with colour photographs rather than botanical drawings, a huge innovation at the time. His first book, Wild Flowers of Britain was a big success selling 400,000 copies in the first year and in all, he has now published more than 20 volumes, often with his long-time collaborator Martyn Rix who’s currently working at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
As we stroll along, Roger pauses every few steps to pluck and nibble a choice bloom or a succulent leaf. There are petals from a lovely early rose called ‘Frühlingsmorgen’, Jack-by-the-hedge – “an OK salad plant with a slightly garlic flavour” – and Smyrnium perfoliatum, a relative of Alexanders which Roger can’t remember whether he’s tried before or not. “This is actually very nice to eat but I’m not sure about advising people to try it – as you see, I’ve eaten some so I’ll tell you in a week. You can ring me up and if I don’t answer you’ll know,” he chuckles.
Spring is salad season for foragers. As well as the onion family, there are plenty of other common weeds to try such as chickweed, claytonia and even nettles (although you’ll need to cook the stinging kind) which can be treated as a cut-and-come-again crop. “Pick them when they’re young shoots about two inches high, they’re much the best then for salads,” says Roger. “That doesn’t mean you only have to have them in spring though because if you hack them down, a couple of weeks later, even in the middle of summer, they’ll come again.”
Summer is the time to look out for edible flowers and then comes peak season for the classic forager’s fare of berries, fruits, nuts and one of Roger’s greatest passions – mushrooms. “You can look for wild mushrooms all over the place, in fields, in woods, and so on and they’re delicious and wonderful but you obviously have to know what you’re doing,” he says. “There are only four or five really poisonous ones but others would upset you and about half you wouldn’t eat – some of them are too woody or stringy; others have either a very bitter flavour or are too peppery. That leaves the other half that are edible and about 50 of them are good. The trouble is there’s always another one that can catch you out, you’ve got to go with someone who knows them really well.”
Although it seems a little domesticated for the wild art of foraging, gardens can be a great place to start out, according to Roger. “You can eat daisies for goodness sake and their leaves as well,” he says. “Dandelions are very good – as well as the leaves and the little buds, you can eat the yellow petals. They’re so pretty on salads and they’re just slightly astringent, like chicory but not as strong.” Although we may baulk a little at eating dandelions, they were once cultivated in kitchen gardens in Britain, and in France, the young leaves are still sold at markets and form the basis for a classic salad with bacon, called pissenlit au lard. Roger has even allowed some garden plants to sneak into Wild Food’s edible flowers section, after being inspired by working with Joy Larkcom on The Organic Salad Garden. Rose petals of any type, wild or cultivated, are Roger’s favourites but he also likes to use day lilies and yucca flowers to give salads a fragrant twist.
Even without a garden though, there are treasures to be found in cities if you look hard enough, according to Roger. The banks of the Thames, for instance, are a great place to find Alexanders, a very versatile herb. “It seems to like the little bit of warmth you get near water so it grows along the coast and near river banks,” Roger explains. Introduced by the Romans, it was also planted in the early monastery gardens and was still in widespread use by the 17th century but then gradually lost ground to the more fashionable celery. The stems can be cooked as a vegetable while the leaves can be used for flavouring or when young, eaten raw in salads. “It actually has a very strong celery flavour so you don’t need very much. Just a few leaves chopped up and a couple of potatoes, maybe a carrot and a clove of garlic would make a lovely soup,” he says. Wherever you’re foraging, Roger recommends taking great care with identification and keeping away from roads. “We have so many more cars now, there’s too much muck coming out of them to pick on roadsides,” he says.
Roger credits his love of foraging to growing up on his grandparents’ farm in Hertfordshire during the war where he learnt to catch rabbits and earned a small fortune picking and selling field mushrooms in the midst of rationing. And despite having lived mostly in London, you can’t help but feel his connection to the wilder places beyond the city. Roger’s stories of family weekends when his children were growing up in the seventies sum it up nicely. “I separated from my wife when my son Sam was about five and after about a year or so, I used to have him at the weekend, I started thinking, he’s becoming a townie, he doesn’t like getting his feet muddy, so we instituted what we called ‘going to the country’ every weekend,” he says. Usually going just as far as the Green Belt, near Denham, Roger and family kept up this tradition for almost a decade. “We went every weekend, in snow, in rain, everything, there was no let up. Then it became a cult thing, all his friends wanted to come, then their parents wanted to come, so there would sometimes be 16 of us and I tried to teach them about the plants and everything my grandmother had taught me,” he remembers.
For Roger, food picked outside is best cooked outside and so campfires were a big feature of these weekends. “I absolutely love cooking out of doors, I’m mad about it, I think it’s the way to live,” he says. “We made a fire, even in the pouring rain, and cooked lunch out every weekend.” This enthusiasm bursts out of Wild Food which is full of pictures of glistening mushrooms and delicately sautéed leaves in long-handled pans precariously balanced amongst rocks and logs.
Although wild food is currently again enjoying something of a revival, Roger’s book is full of reminders of how foraging expeditions were once a part of the fabric of everyone’s lives, a tradition that has now all but disappeared. “A generation ago,” says Roger in the book, “blackberry-picking time was an event on the calendar almost as significant as that of Christmas or Easter. Entire families from town and city, armed with buckets and ‘tilly’ cans descended on the countryside and plundered the roadsides, hedges, woods and waste ground.” This booty was borne back to kitchens and baked into pies and other goodies so delicious that they marked out a red-letter day in the memories of everyone lucky enough to sample them. Going away was just another opportunity to get picking. “Years ago everybody used to go on holiday in Britain so when you went to Scotland or to the Lake District, you went for a walk on the moors and ate your bilberries and then when you went to the seaside there was wonderful sea asparagus [samphire], which is absolutely delicious,” Roger explains.
Roger’s book is not just though a paean to the recent past, it is permeated with the food history of all sorts of periods and places. “I spent two or three years just studying old herbals, looking for ancient recipes,” says Roger. This has resulted in such delights as Ash Key Pickle from John Evelyn’s Acetaria, a Discourse of Sallets of 1699 and Sorrel Soop with Eggs from The Compleat City and Country Cook written by Charles Carter in 1732. Household books or busy books, compiled by friends’ grandmothers were another source as were friends from overseas. “I have a Swedish friend and she introduced me to rosehip soup. In England we always used to eat rosehips and make rosehip syrup which is terrifically good for you and full of vitamin C but the Swedes use it to make a cold soup which they call nyponsoppa,” Roger explains. Greek beach barbecues inspired a sort of twist on the now ubiquitous cooking with hay – charcoal-baked fish on fennel – whilst for chestnuts, there are instructions for making flour, a traditional Corsican staple.
Even after so many explorations, this latest edition of Wild Food is no swansong for Roger, busy as he is with plans for another adventure. Later in the summer he is heading to the US to retrace the steps of bands of the native American Nez Perce people, who in 1877 undertook an epic 1,600 mile flight from their homelands in Oregon towards sanctuary in Canada, relentlessly pursued by the US army. He is currently growing camas, once one of the tribe’s staple foods, on his balcony in preparation for the trip during which, amongst other things, he’ll be researching the other wild plants they relied on. “They ate the bulbs of camas like an onion and they also ground them up and baked them so they had a flour,” he says. Although he says he has no plans to write another volume based on this particular trip, it’s still worth keeping a look out for such a book or at least for an exhibition of his paintings and drawings inspired by the tribe. Whatever the result, it can’t help but be testament to Roger’s boundless enthusiasm and adventuring spirit that refused to be dimmed even by his early struggles with those explosive nettles.