In what promises to be the publishing event of the year for edible-plant geeks, Stephen Barstow’s long-awaited book Around the World in 80 Plants has finally hit the online bookshelves. Stephen is a pioneer of perennial vegetables: in 2003 he was dubbed ‘Extreme Salad Man’ after creating a salad using 537 varieties of plants. I can’t claim to be an impartial reviewer of the book, having been so keen to get it that I didn’t so much drop hints as specify it outright to my family as Christmas approached. Having now read it, I wasn’t disappointed.
In some ways 80 Plants is quite a limited book. It deals purely with edible perennial plants in which the leaves, shoots or flowers are the main crop. Within this range it makes no attempt to be a comprehensive textbook: ground that has been well trodden by reference works such as Ken Fern’s Plants for a Future or Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden is left alone. Instead it picks up where these books leave off, with the plants and uses of plants that they neglect. On this territory you couldn’t wish for a better guide. Stephen is a comprehensive researcher: he has read obscure historical sources about these plants, he has grown them in his garden and he has cooked and eaten them.
Like many of the species covered, the book criss-crosses the line between foraging and cultivation as we are taken on a tour of the temperate world’s foraging, growing and culinary traditions. In contrast to most books in this field, written by authors whose experience comes from the warmer end of this island, Stephen’s knowledge comes from a rocky garden near Trondheim in Norway, just shy of the Arctic Circle, making it thoroughly Scotland-proof. I also appreciated Stephen’s taste-buds. Many foraging and forest gardening books take what I can only call a generous view of the palatability of many plants and I have often spent much effort tracking down a plant that turns out to be, for me at least, inedible. Stephen is quick to say when a plant is bitter or needs some special preparation to make it edible.
While only a small proportion of the plants were completely new to me, I learned at least one thing new about each. I now have a list of new ways to try many of my existing plants as well as a list of (yet more!) plants to acquire.
The book is currently available at a special offer price from the publisher, Permanent Publications.