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Vittles 5.5 - Foraging
Foraging in London: Leaves, by Rich Baker
When I was a child I had my first illicit taste of urban foraging, although I didn’t know it then. I inherit my innate greed from my mother - a veteran of climbing up mango trees in Mombasa, where (if you listen to her version of events) she spent more time hunting, eating and being scolded for eating mangoes than she did actually learning anything at school. She recounts one time, with exquisite timing, being told off inside the classroom for some misdeed only to be interrupted by the sound of a mango falling off the tree, provoking her to immediately run out and suffer yet more consequences. Whenever I hear this story I also cannot help but think of this.
When she moved to Britain at the age of 15, she had to learn quickly about the available fresh fruit situation. A tree in Clissold Park was marked out - a gnarled, crooked mulberry tree, that yielded a hard-to-pick but extraordinary delicious harvest of palm-staining grenade-shaped berries every summer. The mulberry is an exquisite fruit, as close to the quality of a mango as you’re going to get in London’s feeble sunshine. The readiness in the way they give up their purple juice means they’re impossible to transport; Ovid gives mulberry a founding myth in the Metamorphoses as the tree upon which Pyramus and Thisbe, each thinking the other dead, commit suicide, staining the white berries with eager blood. This means they have to be eaten straight off the tree. My mum considered the mulberry tree a sort of secret - despite the obvious fact that it was a big public tree - and would utilise stools and sometimes myself in order to get the fruit. In my mind, I thought what we were doing might be illegal, but in retrospect it was clear that she just didn’t want anyone else finding out about the mulberries.
Twenty five years later and everyone is at it. My mum was an unwitting pioneer of what is called urban foraging, and if she had business nous she could have probably set up some kind of business supplying restaurants with the fruits that even Natoora can’t reach. There is now even a database of mulberry trees for you to find your own, semi-secret harvest. As writer and chef Rich Baker points out in today’s newsletter, the first in his series on foraging in London, we really are blessed in this city with nature. For all of the talk about the Big Smoke, about the greyness of urban life, I have never been to a single city that competes with London on the scope and accessibility of its green space. Its urban parks, its woodlands and forests, its canal towpaths and ancient tributaries, all mean that its possible for the chef with a little bit of know-how to access London produce. If you haven’t before then this is maybe the perfect time to learn how to forage - most of the amenities of being in a global city are denied to us right now, yet we can still take advantage of it. After all, urban foraging is just a form of mindfulness, of noticing and forming a relationship with the idiosyncrasies of our public spaces - start and you may not see the city in the same way again.
Foraging in London, by Rich Baker
I live on a boat. It is always a good icebreaker at parties, never fails! ‘Is it cold?’ they ask.
Roaming the canals of London has helped me create a recipe book of ingredients foraged within half a mile of where I lay anchor, or tie up to the towpath to be more precise. I have been on the canals for just over four years now, swapping a city-view flat for the intrigues of boat life. Ironically, time has moved quickly for such a slow-moving craft, but being in an oversized steel-hulled tent in the middle of nature does attune you more to the natural rhythm of time’s passing throughout the year.
Winter foraging doesn’t bring much joy; I know where to ‘scrump’ some bay, sage and rosemary but it’s slim pickings. The real beauty begins around the spring equinox, the time when my rooftop solar panels rise from their slumber and the dawn chorus awakens me at some unearthly hour.
This year’s equinox of March 20th was somewhat overshadowed by other news. I had just returned from Norfolk with a big bag of wild garlic (best found in ancient undisturbed woodland) when the lockdown was announced, meaning I would have to limit foraging to my immediate vicinity only. Being on the Lee Navigation and close to Hackney Marshes means I have an abundance of nature just one step off my deck. As I try to embrace where we are in this current standstill, spring has provided a warming blanket for me, both mentally and physically. With my fortnightly boat move now shelved, I am privileged to have a front row seat from my galley window to watch the leaves of the beech, silver birch, willow and horse chestnut unfurl; each leaf new-born, perfectly formed and ready to embrace the season’s challenges ahead. It is at this point that my quest for free food begins.
This is only my third season of foraging – a grandiose word for gathering edible stems, fruits, flowers, nuts and leaves. I use common sense, follow simple rules, learn from wiser people than myself and only collect what I know is 100% edible and from land which is not private, and is away from dogs, pavements and engine emissions.
Opening my curtains each morning has become so much more joyous than opening my Mac, as I observe nature maintaining its routines at a time when so many of us have lost ours. Whatever else is uncertain, we can be assured that the arrival of spring sunshine will awaken shoots, open leaves, unwrap flowers from their buds and pollinate stigmas for fruits and nuts, leading to the decay which sows next year’s seeds.
From experience, I have found that it is spring and autumn which are most abundant for my menu needs. Leaves for the spring, flowers for the summer and fruits for the autumn. I am still yet to master the wonders of the mushroom family for a written quadrilogy.
Part 1: Leaves
There is something beautiful in seeing leaves unfurl. The new season’s stinging nettles come early, their shabby winter leaves left behind, promising a new start for a new year. From February until June, and again in autumn, you should pick the top eight or so leaves, although once they start to flower and seed the best has seeped out of them and they become coarse and taste bitter. The humble nettle is a great way to start your journey into foraging and, yes, you will soon get over the feeling that everyone is watching you delve into the wilderness like Bear Grylls. Nettles grow on nitrogen-rich ground, tend not to be choosy where they flower and are particularly prolific in the scruffier boundaries of your local park or woodland path. Picking requires long trousers, gardening gloves and kitchen scissors to cut the tops. I would harvest directly into sturdy bags and soak/wash thoroughly in cold water when home whilst retaining the marigolds in case of any further stinging.
The goodness from nettles even surpasses kale. It’s a super-wild food with a mild flavour akin to spinach and broccoli, a fabulous bulk item with many uses. Nettle soup is an old-time favourite and if you treat it as spinach you’ll soon find yourself adding it to pasta and pizza, making beautiful green pesto and sometimes even using it from raw, chopping finely into a white cabbage and caraway kraut. For pesto, soups, pastas and others I would cook it every time: either blanch in boiling water for 45 seconds, drain, season and pop in the fridge to use later or, if making nettle soup, add a minute or two before the end of the cooking process and before blending.
Note: When harvesting you will no doubt come across the flowering white and purple nettles (dead nettles). These belong to the mint family and can be eaten raw as a garnish or cooked. They have a taste not dissimilar to nettles although are more floral and sweet.
If you fancy a rather more leftfield experience, try that of deep-fried leaf crisps from the hawthorn, silver birch and beech trees. Unfurling in early spring alongside the flower of the hawthorn and the catkin of the beech and birch, these young, supple pale green leaves, still translucent and squinting at the spring sunbeams piercing through the leaf canopy, can be picked plentifully. Once harvested, wash and pat them dry, then deep fry in hot oil in a small pan for 15 seconds or so, drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle with a little sea salt, adding chilli powder if you wish! (A recipe borrowed from The Edible City by John Rensten).
The towpath can be an unforgiving environment for plant life: little soil and inundated by jogging and cycling Londoners. But in the cracks you can still find gems which make for worthy additions to any salad or sandwich. Sweet and mild chickweed with its small, bright green leaf and little white flower is a substitute for any fashionable micro herb. Fat hen, a bigger and darker leaf to chickweed but another Londoner, has the taste of chard and is at home in the forager’s salad bowl. Hairy bittercress, neither hairy nor bitter, is a rosette of tender peppery greens from the mustard family and can be found on open ground until early winter. Finally, seek out eastern or London rocket, which is pungent and peppery. This freeloader is a favourite of mine throughout spring, adding yellow edible flower beacons in the summer. I love the persistence of these plants – the never-say-die attitude, growing from a space most would deem worthless to flourish, flower and come back time after time and give their best to nature and its pollinators.
There are two distinctive leaves/fronds, again both towpath finds, which can play a lead rather than a supporting role on your dinner plate: wild garlic and wild fennel. Wild garlic, or ransoms to some, is a plant of real versatility and a joy to its beholder. Originating from the ancient countryside woodland, it has upped sticks and planted itself just west of Paddington. It was there I came across a patch of wild garlic big enough to furnish me with leaf pesto, and pickled buds and flowers to garnish any unassuming plate. The find was small and in a public space but well hidden. I am also familiar with patches in Epping Forest and Hackney Wick. You can identify it immediately by smell and the wide green leaves peep through the soil as early as February, closely followed by stems producing the most unassuming of flower buds. When you pop them into your mouth they take you back to your first childhood experience of space dust; a flavour bomb provided by mother nature herself, the fiery garlic and spicy pepper mix with the scent of the woodland and the call of cuckoo and the song thrush.
Wild fennel grows throughout London – my personal stash lays low in Islington and Haggerston – but even more so on the Essex coast. These haughty stems are easily identifiable with their distinctive fronds like a combover in the wind and can be picked and chopped fresh like dill into salads and dressings, or sprinkled over hot new potatoes. The stems grow to well over four feet and are crowned in July with tiny yellow flowers and the much-prized fennel pollen. Appropriately known as the ‘spice of angels’, fennel pollen is fiddly to collect but by tapping each flower in turn your patience will be rewarded by a golden dust of aniseed and citrus to add to pasta, salad dressing or roasted chicken. Be warned though: it doesn’t keep as well as a shop-bought product but the reward is well worth the chase.
For those with newfound time, this is an opportunity to open your eyes wider to nature in our capital city. It is a bountiful place, from the marshes of Hackney to the heights of Primrose Hill and around 35,000 acres of parkland within. We have an accessible fruit and vegetable garden in walking distance for us all. We must take heed of nature’s most wondrous commodity. Whether in troubled times or not, I encourage us all to get closer to what we have on our doorstep.
For more information on foraging, please see https://www.wildfooduk.com/
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The illustration was done by Reena Makwana, whose work can be found on her website https://reenamakwana.com/. She was paid for this newsletter.
Many thanks to Liz Tray for subedits.