The benefits of foraging and where to try it in London
Ever since I can remember I have wanted to be outside. I have always had a yearning to be a part of the unruly wilderness of nature. Maybe these are the reasons I now make a living as a forager. As a child growing up in South West Wales, the great outdoors provided me with entertainment, and I never had more than 5 minutes to travel before I was in the woods, at the beach or in the hills.
Nature has been the backdrop to my daily work routine throughout my life. I have worked next to the sea as a deckchair attendant, on the sea as a whelk fisherman, followed by years spent in the woods as a tree surgeon, and I am now celebrating my 10th year as a forager. In that time I have supplied wild food to Michelin-starred restaurants, royalty, Borough Market, Harrods, Abel and Cole and many more.
My new and first book is a guide to foraging in the city, it describes in great written detail alongside informative imagery, the plants, flowers, herbs and berries that are growing all around us, that seem to go unnoticed in the streets, parks, commons and canals. It catalogues 36 wild edibles that commonly appear in cities throughout the UK and beyond. Each plant is accompanied by a recipe and a suggestion of how best to collect, process, cook and eat that particular plant.
FORAGING MADE SIMPLE
All of this is in order to hopefully make foraging a more appealing and accessible hobby, to try and make the foodies, the gym-goers, the dog walkers, runners, cyclists and pedestrians of the city, stop and take a closer look at the plants you pass by every day. You could be walking past Yarrow, a plant that the Greek hero Achilles used to heal his soldiers wounds during the battle of Troy; or Mallow, a plant that a French confectioner first created marshmallows from in the 1800’s; or a tree of wild figs that would cost over £2.50 in the shop, and there is a weed that tastes like pineapple, so much so that it’s called Pineapple Weed! These wonder plants can be found growing all over our city, in the cracks of the concrete, climbing a fence, overhanging a gateway, in a cemetery or in a park, a flowerbed or a waterway, and once you begin to notice them you start to see them everywhere.
MORE THAN JUST FOOD
These aren’t the only benefits foraging offers its participants. Obviously, it offers the benefit of regular exercise, but also of learning a new skill, it offers the excitement of new flavours, tastes, smells, and experiences. It offers a wealth of new knowledge and interest, an opportunity to spend more time outside, and in a world where people now more than ever, want to know where their food is coming from, it offers you direct ground to table produce, picked by your own fair hand. This simple act has been practised by our ancestors since our very existence, it is a skill that has been integral to our survival on this planet, but over the past few hundred years, sadly has been lost.
To me, one of the most addictive aspects of foraging is learning about the plants. To learn how they are all connected, all the different families, how they grow and change throughout the year, how they seem to thrive unaided, even somewhere as unnatural as the city. People tend to turn their nose up when you mention foraging in a city, but foraging can be done anywhere, it doesn’t have to be in the woods with a wicker basket and wooden stick, the city can be just as good to look around, and London is a particularly good city to start looking. Besides its 8.3 million trees, London is 47% green space making it one of the greenest cities in the world.
THE BENEFITS OF GOING AU NATUREL
All of these wild plants contain far more vitamins, minerals, and nutrients than anything you will find in a shop. These plants don’t have the luxury of being fed and watered like their shop-bound cultivated cousins. This means that over the hundreds of thousands of years that they have been around, they have learned to store huge amounts of this goodness in their make up, not only in order to survive but to also make themselves desirable to the creatures that surround them. That is how powerful these plants are, not only in their design but in their nutrition also. For example, if you replaced spinach in your diet with dandelion you would be getting 8 times more anti-oxidants, twice as much calcium, twice the kcal, 2.5 times the carbohydrates, twice the calcium, 3 times as much Vitamin A, and 5 times more Vitamin K and E per 100g.
These plants, therefore, are the survivors, the best of the best, the ones that the animal kingdom and ourselves couldn’t do without. Give it a go. Let me be your Richard O’Brian/Ayoade guiding you through the crystal maze that is Foraging. Wild food isn’t just for fancy restaurants any more.
Here are a few special spots in London where you can give foraging a go:
Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington – is abundant in wild garlic during the Spring months of March to May.
Victoria Park, Hackney – beds of chickweed grow wild in the park all year round. Dismissed by gardeners and allotment holders as a common weed, this tasty and nutritious plant can create a delicious pesto.
Clapham Common, SW London – nettles can be found all over London but try out the commons in particular. Nettles are surprisingly tasty and can be used in place of spinach in lots of recipes. They are packed with vitamin C, iron and protein too.
Camden Lock Canal – dandelion is also written off as a common weed but again its leaves and flowers can be used in cooking and its flavour is somewhere between rocket and spinach and is a whole lot more nutritious. It flowers in early spring along towpaths and roadsides, so keep your eyes peeled.
Hackney marshes – hairy bittercress is a fresh-tasting and peppery member of the mustard family and this hardy little plant can be seen on the Hackney Marshes. Try bittercress in a risotto, a pesto or add it to some roasted vegetables.
The Urban Forager: Find and Cook Wild Food in the City
Author: Wross Lawrence / Photography: Marco Kesseler
Published by Hoxton Mini Press on 19th March