‘Nearly everything Stephen Barstow grows is edible.’ Photograph: Simon Wheeler
I like to search for things. I’ll take any excuse to go on a hunt for something in fields, waysides, woodlands, junk stores, attics or the internet. This is how I came across Stephen Barstow a few years ago while writing a book about foraging. I was, metaphorically speaking, foraging on the internet for a new source of food and I found an article about a man who made a ridiculously large salad. It had something like 537 ingredients, took several days to assemble and was a world record. I had to meet him.
I persuaded Stephen that I wasn’t a serial killer and that he should invite me to his garden in Norway, then asked photographer Simon Wheeler to join the adventure. The night before we left, I realised I’d not asked Stephen if he was a serial killer, because that’s what you’re supposed to ask men you meet on the internet, right?
By the time Simon and I got to Oslo, we had worked ourselves into a state: were we about to become ingredients in a salad? His answer was to buy some duty free, because whatever happened, being well-oiled would ease the pain. We arrived late at night to a tiny airport with our bags of bottles clanking away.
Stephen’s garden is thrilling. It’s a sheer hillside with a spectacular view of the largest fjord in Norway, and if you’re not distracted by that, then there are the plants. Nearly everything he grows is edible. It’s a treasure trove of all we have eaten and could eat, cared for by a delightfully eccentric, generous curator. Even better, he’s written a book about the wonderful and weird things he grows (Around The World In 80 Plants, published by Permanent Publications).
Recently, I’ve been trailing round the house with my copy, unable to put it down. I have an ever-increasing list of things to grow, to retry, to recook, to investigate. Often, with weird foods, there are challenges – lengthy processing, bitter flavours, tough leaves – but Stephen’s is a well-refined list. Many of the plants will already be growing in your garden, only as ornamentals. Stephen has coined these “edimentals”: edible ornamentals such as asters, hostas, bistorts, alliums and mallows. Others are weeds, and there’s a whole section on dandelions – pretty, pale-flowered species or those with dark red leaves.
This is the perfect book for January. Many of these plants are not easy to find: a few nurseries offer them, but most have to be grown from seed. So there’s the challenge. Imagine a world where we can eat more than bland carrots or boring lettuces, go hunt and start sowing. The more of us who convert to these climate-friendly, useful edibles, the better our future will taste.
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