The Yorkshire Forager by Alysia Vasey – Review
By David Schuster
The Yorkshire Forager is not the book I’d expected – it’s so much more. What I’d anticipated was something akin to my ageing and well-thumbed copy of Food for Free by Richard Mabey, the 1970’s bible for anyone who’s interested in eating wild foods, but perhaps with a regional distinction. Instead, this is a beautiful mix of autobiography, natural history and gentle observational humour, the likes of which I haven’t read since the stories of Derek Tangye and Jack Hargreaves.
Author Alysia Vasey has become a professional gatherer through her expert knowledge of the culinary uses of wild ingredients, supplying ingredients to some of the most accomplished chefs in the world. She has been featured in numerous culinary magazines, as well as appearing on Countryfile and the Saturday Morning with James Martin cookery show. Despite this, she retains the pleasingly down to earth turn of phrase of a true Yorkshire woman; I have a Medlar tree in my garden, which she describes as ‘without doubt the most minging of fruits’. She then goes on to describe how you have to freeze, thaw and refreeze the fruit several times to soften it enough to eat, a process known as bletting.
The book is divided into two sections; the first tells the story of the author’s first forays as a little girl with her grandad, through to her revelation that she could supply top restaurants with difficult to obtain ingredients, and the formation of her Doncaster-based company; Yorkshire Foragers Produce Limited. The second part, ‘My Foraging Year’ tracks the seasons, and provides insights into a few of the edible highlights to be found throughout the months. Both sections act as vehicles for Vasey to pass on the knowledge, stories and wisdom that it has taken her a lifetime to accumulate. That she manages to do this in a light-hearted manner that shines with her love of the subject, is part of the magic of this publication.
The text covers an excellent range of plants: There are those that will be familiar to you, if you have a knowledge of British flora; wild garlic, elderflower and bilberries, but which make great introductory finds if you’re just starting your gathering adventures. There are some you may recognise from restaurant menus; truffles, samphire and juniper berries, and there are those which fall into the category of ‘more challenging’, either because they are difficult to find, like my own holy grail, the giant puffball, or which require extended processing to be edible, such as the acorn. The fruit of the oak tree needs to be soaked in water for a month, changing the liquid every two days. You then peel and grind them, creating a form of flour. Good luck with that!
I used the word ‘wisdom’ advisedly earlier, as it’s that which really sets The Yorkshire Forager apart, allowing the reader to benefit from the writer’s years of experience. One of the most poignant stories is Vasey’s exploration into the recent history of her family, and how her grandfather’s knowledge of wild foods literally made the difference between life and death. It underlines how quickly the veneer of modern life can be stripped from us, leaving us dependent upon skills which we are close to losing.
Through the gentle humour of the text, the author also highlights other important truths; such as the observation that there’s an intricate interconnectedness within the natural world which we ignore at our peril. It’s no coincidence that mental welfare and time outdoors are linked; we are after all a species that evolved for a life outdoors.
To be clear, this isn’t intended as a reference work which you could take out into the countryside in order to begin foraging; there are no colour photographs or pictures, and indeed few line drawings. Rather this is the step before that, intended to make the reader enthusiastic enough about collecting and cooking wild ingredients that they want to make the effort to learn more.
Very few people these days are lucky enough to have parents or grandparents who are able to pass on the love and respect for nature that comes with a knowledge of the countryside. This delightful book allows us to remedy that loss. Read it and pass it on to your children.
‘The Yorkshire Forager – A Wild Survival Journey’ by Alysia Vasey is published by Headline, £20 hardback