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Vittles 5.7 - Foraging 2
Foraging in London: Flowers, by Rich Baker
In lieu of an introduction I’ve published something I wrote a year ago and got shortlisted for in a competition, but never really had an excuse to share publicly. It’s about 40 Maltby Street, seasonal eating, falling in love and elderflowers — which links it to today’s newsletter by Rich Baker which is the second in his series on foraging in London. If you wish to read it then you can find it here https://medium.com/@vittles/menu-12-vh-18-9067201d0db9 . Otherwise, do read on…
Foraging in London: Flowers, by Rich Baker
I’ve categorised my foraging seasons into three loose chapters: spring leaves, summer flowers and autumn fruits with a little overlap and some leeway in-between for coastal greens and late season fungi. From late February, when there is still a chill in the morning air, I will collect young edible shoots and leaves from London’s park and woodland floors, bring a verdant freshness to the plate right through until June. From April you will begin to see the buds appear, as the flora starts to unravel and come to life through May and past the summer equinox. Usually I would plan harvesting requirements around drinking and dining sojourns at favourite picnic haunts ensuring the ephemeral season of each delicate petal and bloom is collected at their fragrant peak, but all my cordials, kombuchas, fizzes and desserts are in suspended animation, awaiting the social side of a city summer outdoors we yearn for. A word of warning: copious amounts of sugar do tend to fortify each and every recipe.
London’s wild flowers are nature’s graffiti sprayed upon urban surroundings. Nautical flags of red, yellow and blue; the towpath bunting of poppy, dandelion and borage are clocked along the River Lea and the Regent’s Canal while cruising at a snail’s pace for my bi-weekly move.
The hawthorn, apple and cherry signal their Mayday arrival, sprays of cream and pale pink blossoms whitewashed across the borough’s hedgerows. The hawthorn is the queen of May, whose blossoms, when infused as a tincture, are said to heal and strengthen, emotionally, physically and spiritually - something we could all do with right now. I have only once ventured into the culinary opportunities from these petals by making a simple hawthorn blossom syrup.
For a simple cordial syrup, dissolve two cups of white sugar in three cups of hot water, bringing to the boil and then allow to cool. Pour the syrup over 5 cups of hawthorn blossom (all stems removed). Stir and return to the pan adding one lemon and its zest, simmer for approximately 10 minutes, cool completely and filter through muslin to produce a clear vanilla-scented cordial to be diluted in water or something stronger. Apple and cherry blossom are a compatible substitute for the Haw blossom following the same recipe, ensuring you identify what you are picking by the leaves, bark and flower head itself.
Elderflowers are next in line to poke their head through the city greenscape. Tallow coloured flowers herald the arrival of our home-grown champagne varietal from the hedgerow, toasting all that’s good about balmy evenings. Elderflower harvesting is de rigueur when it comes to the commencement of summer foraging. Once you know what you are looking for elderflowers can be found pretty much everywhere. Be thoughtful of what you require and make sure to pick only what you need, ensuring plenty of berries will be available for the autumn. The elder is easy to identify: tallish bushes with fragile and cragged bark, belying its youthful springtime exterior of bountiful blooms and feathered leaves. But if you don’t spot it, you will certainly smell it.
One sure fire tip would be to harvest the flowers on a warm and sunny day when the pollen is at its prime ensuring its Muscat fragrance will be decanted into your homemade beverage of choice, via a syrup or cordial (you can find a well-tried recipe from my friends at the Woodland Trust) Once you have learnt how to make a good elderflower syrup you could add lemon verbena or lavender to the infusion and experiment with drizzles to crème fraiche or panna cotta. With all of these flower petal syrups I use an unrefined organic fair-trade cane sugar from Billingtons.
May becomes June, a month that provides a thicker chapter in the foraging manual of summer. I am not generally drawn to the domestic varieties, such as the showy salad pansies with their Insta-savviness, or the striking courgette flowers arrogant in their refusal to be stuffed by the novice chef, and instead head for the wilder varieties away from the allotments.
Most wild London residents are fairly easily found, but borage can be a somewhat trickier proposition in London most likely due to an excess of orderly council mowing and strimming removing the heads of our wild plants just days before their time to seed and depriving our pollinators and natures repeating grow, flower, seed repeat cycle. Borage has a cucumber taste in both leaf and flower, hence its association with Pimm’s. It can sometimes be confused with the more abundant green alkanet, however its distinctive five-pointed flower will ensure correct identification. My latest and most reliable find is just away from the towpath in Haggerston to which I take a little Tupperware container to collect the flowers, protecting their delicate structure and maintaining some freshness — be it in the fridge overnight or for the journey home.
Both the borage flower and leaf can be eaten; pick the leaves young (before they develop a hairy texture) sautéing the leaves in a little oil and black pepper for a spinach substitute. The flowers can be eaten fresh or perhaps frozen inside an ice cube to add decoration to a long summer drink. Borage is an excellent pollinator so please pick little and often if you do have the luxury of a plant near you. A way of preserving the beauty of these and other edible flowers would be crystallising, a passion of my mother’s who embalmed floral brooches of primroses, violets and borage providing the perfect accolade to top a lockdown banana cake.
Going into the wilderness and collecting petals from a wild rose, I am reminded of the playground ammunition of my youth where rosehip itching powder and elder stem pea shooters were a form of biological warfare.
Now I transform the harvested petals into a sweet and floral syrup following a simple recipe of 500g petals, 250g cane sugar & half a litre of filtered water, first heating the water to a simmer and pouring over the washed petals, leaving overnight. In the morning add the sugar, bring to the boil for seven minutes and strain through a muslin bag. When the fragrant pink syrup is strained through, bring back to the boil and cool again, transfer to a sterilised glass bottle and refrigerate. The syrup can be used in both sweet and savoury cooking imparting a floral aroma to tagines and baklava alike.
Back in the open spaces and away from urban pollutants, when walking a well-trodden park or forest path I would recommend looking out for the summer flower head of the pineapple weed. A relative of camomile, this straggly tight yellow-headed plant follows the tendency of many other edible wild plants to thrive in the most barren of conditions. As origin stories go, the pineapple weed has a good one, having escaped from Kew Gardens some 200 years ago to become one of the fastest spreading British plants in the 20th century. In the style of a Heston creation, when you pick and nibble on the lolly-yellow flowerhead, your senses will be slapped by its distinctive pineapple taste. As with many summer pickings, this flower head can be added to a salad or again turned into syrups and cordials for jellies and cocktails.
There is a plant which sits among the path side grass, a familiar if overlooked specimen but one with a noticeably tall seed head which is that of the ribwort plantain. Your mind may be conjuring up thoughts of Ridley Road Market but this plantain is of a very different kind. The pedigree of this rather unassuming plant is worth a double take by anyone’s standards - an antihistamine, an antioxidant, an antifungal, an analgesic and even a relief for nettle stings and insect bites. It also has edible properties: the seed head has a very distinctive taste of mushroom when bitten directly from the stem which can be made into a vegetable stock of sorts.
Early evening foraging when the dandelions are still beaming yellow suns before shutting up for the night provides a reflective time to browse nature’s flora and look out for the prettier wild flowers to garnish your Anna Jones tartine or leaf salad. The three I would recommend are the mallow, clover and cowslip. This trio are all local to the Londoner and a welcome natural filter to garnish a summer plate.
Mallow can be found in gardens, hedgerows and waste ground. It loves the sun and grows quickly with its large round edible leaves and lilac pink five petalled flowers most suited to use as a pictorial plate garnish rather than a flavour enhancer.
Clover has a faint sweet taste but is mainly prized for its aesthetics when chopped into salads or sautéed in a pan with courgettes, new potatoes or any spring vegetable of your choice. It’s associated with lush grassland but thrives happily in many London spaces. These well-known flowers are generally pink or white and not one to shy away from being picked.
Cowslips, with their egg yolk yellow nodding blooms, is a relative of the primrose and is the bloom of choice to adorn garlands and alfresco platters. With a slight citrusy taste, they put up a good fight against a tart vinaigrette. With each stem containing many flowers the cowslip is easily recognised although becoming a rarer find outside of the London parks.
There is one final plant that sits on the park railings between cultivated and wild, a meanderer from the raised bed: the bountiful nasturtium. Wide, succulent peppery leaves, flowers of orange and red and, at the end of summer, the most amazing seed pods which I pickle and turn into crunchy capers - even better than the real thing! I find this entirely edible member of the cabbage family a very loveable rogue, adding zing to a conventional salad bowl. The fragrant flowers will follow the leaves into summer dishes and look the part in vinaigrettes and garnishes. I wholeheartedly recommend giving the humble nasturtium a try - it will provide fresh leaf growth all the way to November, so if you find a south facing stem or two add some leaves to a winter salad or salsa verde for a touch of summer past.
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Rich Baker is the co-creator, recipe writer and chef behind the sustainable wild pizza business www.flatearthpizzas.com. His fee for this newsletter was donated to the Woodland Trust. You can find him on Instagram as @bakeronaboat
The illustration was done by Alia Wilhelm, a collage artist and illustrator based in London. She also runs the website Nearness, which curates handmade artwork and thoughtful writing related to the pandemic. You can find more of her work on her website and Instagram