“I suppose there’s never been anything to beat samphire in the wild. That wonderful ozone and iodine and green flesh taste of it is incomparable,” says Richard Mabey.

The acclaimed Norfolk nature writer is reflecting on his first taste of foraging in the county – the summer holidays - which opened the door to the coastal larder and sparked the idea for a book which went on to become a bona fide culinary classic.

Published in 1972, Food For Free pioneered seasonal and sustainable eating, something which, in the intervening decades, has become much more mainstream.

Today you’ll find foraged produce on the menu in fine dining restaurants as well as in your blackberry crumble.

To mark its 50th anniversary, a new edition of the book has just been published.

A complete guide to help readers safely identify the edible species that grow around us, it is packed with lots of practical information about collecting, cooking and preparing produce as well as history, folklore and how to do it ethically so we are mindful of the environment.

“I’m very proud that this rather madcap exercise as it seemed when I first started it off did touch a chord and that the book has never been out of print since then,” says 81-year-old Richard.

The naturalist and award-winning author and journalist lives near Diss.

It was, says Richard, “serendipity” that led him to “set the compass north” to Norfolk, where the story of Food For Free began.

“When I was a late teenager and in my early 20s, I lived in the Chilterns then and we used to go and spend summer holidays and long weekends living on a converted lifeboat on Blakeney Harbour” he says.

“We learned from up there the local habit of foraging on the seashore, for quite a lot of plants, things like sea spinach and fennel and particularly samphire. Nobody used the word foraging at that time, this was simply you went out and gathered stuff.

“So that was how I was introduced to the whole idea, and it was at a moment in my life when I was desperate to become a full-time writer and was looking for a subject for a book.

“It suddenly occurred to me that this was an ancient tradition that had fallen into disrepair and that it would be wonderful to research it and try and revive it in a way, so that was the genesis of the book.”

Richard recalls how his research was led by “a real sense of curiosity”.

“It began in the most informal of ways,” he says.

“It was two levels. I obviously did a lot of field research, actually hunting things down and trying them out, and quite early on I had a policy of trying anything that wasn’t officially regarded as poisonous.

“There is a government booklet that was bought out in the 1960s, which is called British Poisonous Plants, a Ministry of Agriculture publication, and that gave pretty definitive accounts of all the plants in the UK that were dangerously poisonous. So I not only tried the things that had a good tradition of being used, but also a lot of stuff that hadn’t been tried before but wasn’t actually poisonous.

“And the other avenue of course was library research, I ransacked all kinds of written material: old cookbooks, County Floras, 17th century herbals, finding little fragments in the most improbable places, [such as] in novels.

“One very fruitful line of research was analysis of the stomach contents of Iron Age bog corpses, finding out what people had eaten in their last ritual meals before they were sacrificed. There were some interesting leads in what kind of seeds and things were regarded as edible 3,000 years ago.”

He was also struck by the reasons why people were foraging in the past.

“So, yes, there were revelations, both in the plants that some people had eaten at some time, but also the enjoyment that they got from it. One tended to think that before the late 19th century, foraging was done strictly for survival purposes, that people picked this stuff because it free and because they hadn’t got much else to eat. But certainly, from really quite early, certainly from the 17th century, people were picking wild foods, simply because they enjoyed them, they liked the adventure of finding improbable new flavours.”

As did Richard.

“The benefit was at two levels. There was an intellectual, historical level, but also the immediacy of fantastic new tastes,” he says.

“The discovery of what a giant puffball tasted like at full maturity, which was like a cross between veal and marshmallow, that was a revelation. There were notes of flavour in every item of the taste spectrum that were popping up.”

And, fittingly for a book with its roots in Norfolk, the county and its tastes and traditions, kept on weaving its way into his work.

“The very first book, which is about the qualities of wild food plants, a thing called Flora Diaetetica, is by a Norwich botanist called Charles Bryant, published in the 1770s,” he says.

“That had a lot of really colourful stuff in it. Some of the things I knew, but what was really fascinating was the relish with which this 18th century Norwich man described some of the plants he was eating, really quite rare stuff, like rosebay willowherb which was not the common plant that it is today at that time. He thought the shoots of that were as good as asparagus.

“Another Norfolk thing which really quite surprised me was the extent to which wild cranberries were a common item of commerce in the county,“ he says, explaining that they were picked from the Fens before they were turned over to agriculture.

“There were a lot of superb bogs there and cranberries grew in those,” he says. "There was actually a thriving trade in cranberries going through King’s Lynn, so that was an exciting historical discovery.”

On publication, the success of Food For Free meant that Richard was able to become a full-time writer. Does he have any theories as to why readers were so ripe for the book at the time?

“I’ve often wondered about that,” he muses. “The fact that it struck a chord with me and my friends I suppose is one indicator.

“The whole exercise was a bit hippy,” he laughs. “I think it caught that particular constituency. But also, at that time in the early 1970s, there were two new worries and incentives that were happening in the public. One was concern about the damage to our environment, and the other was a concern about the quality of our food.

“I think that those two together produced a constituency of interested people that you might pool – the beginnings of the green movement that were attracted by a book which covered both those aspects, which looks at the diversity of vegetation in our countryside but also the diversity of tastes and things that could be obtained from it. Many of which were, of course, ancestors of the plants that we eat now.”

Although some have claimed that Food For Free “kickstarted” the foraging movement, Richard doesn’t take the credit, saying that it was more a case of “tapping into a very ancient tradition.”

“Foraging’s been going on forever,” he says. “Even as a middle-class pursuit you can see it in the 19th century and right through the 20th century. I may have given the thing a new kickstart for the end of the 20th century,” he concedes.

Revisiting the book for its 50th anniversary edition, Richard takes the opportunity to reflect on the need for what he calls “foraging etiquette”.

“What I think has been most interesting, and actually significant, is the way that it has been picked up by fine dining, so that you will find foraged items featuring not only on Masterchef, but in just about any gastropub you go into.

“One of the things I’m very concerned about, and it’s the main theme of the new introduction that I’ve written to the book, is how do we, as pickers, behave towards vegetation in a country that is widely acknowledged as nature depleted, one of the worst countries for that in the whole of Europe?

"We need an ethic for picking. That’s what, paradoxically, the restaurants have got, because they use wild foods, not in great enormous helpings, but as little spikes of flavour and I’m pretty keen on the idea that that should guide us now. There are very common things that you can use in quantities like nettles, but for the rest I think enjoy them as flavours, not as the main course.”

Foraging is a way of connecting with nature. Many people now have a renewed appreciation for the important role it plays in our wellbeing, especially when time outdoors was limited during the first pandemic lockdown.

"I’m wary of getting too woo about this, and I think that one of the things that foraging can do is to ground your relationship with nature so that you don’t regard it as something too mystical, which I’m not a great fan of,” says Richard.

“But actually, being attentive to how plants grow, how the seasons affect the extent to which they fruit, it’s to begin to understand the vegetation of our planet and that is the foundation of everything else. If you can learn to understand that you can begin to learn to respect it and hopefully look after it.”

Richard's many other acclaimed publications include Gilbert White, which was a Whitbread Biography of the Year, and the ground-breaking bestseller Flora Britannica.

He is also an active member of national and local conservation groups.

In January this year, along with Stephen Fry and Chris Packham, Richard was among 23 prominent local figures, climate experts and politicians who signed an open letter calling for a rethink of the proposed route of the controversial 3.9-mile Western Link road between the A47 and the Northern Distributor Road on the outskirts of Norwich.

Speaking with Richard, and hearing him enthuse about his favourite foods to forage for in autumn, makes you want to grab your Tupperware tubs and head for the hedgerows.

“This time of this year is very strange, of course, because the seasons have gone adrift,” he says. “Everything that was green turned brown - the idea of collecting green herbs was off. But everything that was fruiting began early and is continuing in immense quantities, so it’s been a terrific blackberry year.

"It’s been a great year too, and I’m astonished that people don’t take advantage of this, for feral pears. I don’t mean truly wild pears, but the pears that have sprung up in hedgerows because someone has thrown a core in there. They’re having a sensational year and road verges are just covered in them and nobody appears to be gathering them up, which is rather strange.

“If the conditions continue as they are, it should be a great fungus autumn in a few weeks’ time,“ he continues.

“The combination of a very hot summer and then quite a lot of rain is very good for mushrooms of all sorts, so I would hope my great favourites giant puffballs will begin to emerge.

“Because I’m a bit old and cranky now, I’m not able to get down on my hands and knees any more so I tend to enjoy little snacks picked off at shoulder level. We have a boat on the Broads and in one of the dykes, I won’t reveal where, there is a genuine wild blackcurrant bush which overhangs the water. We have a game with my partner’s grandchildren that we chug very slowly past this blackcurrant bush and the kids have to see if they can gather berries as we go past.

“That is a great competition that gets them screaming and squealing and they love the blackcurrants that they manage to pick off. It’s one of my seasonal favourites at this time of year.”

Food For Free: The 50th Anniversary Edition by Richard Mabey, is out now, published by William Collins