Foraging is the food trend everybody wants a piece of – slowly born from an interest in sustainable, natural and responsible eating and a disconnection with big brands and processed foods – people and restaurants alike are calling for the chain of consumption to be minimised to a seemingly simple process of pick, prepare and plate.
So chefs are going out of their kitchens and into fields, and freelance foragers are being hired all over the country – but are their edible treasures to be foraged in London? Or as city foragers, are we limited to polluted, semi-poisonous mush?
Jason Irving founder of Forage Wild Food, a London foraging website and community, believes the former. ‘There’s just as many plants, if not more…a lot of the countryside is intensively farmed, sprayed and managed. It’s not as wild as people imagine – we’ve lost about 80% of our grasslands in the past 50 or 60 years. In London it’s a micro climate too, so there’s more around as it’s warmer.’
Most of these plants the public characterise as weeds, and are usually either sprayed, ignored or cut, so over-farming is not an issue, and Jason’s free to conduct his city-foraging courses around some of London’s most famous parks.
We head to Finsbury Park on a Friday afternoon, the park peppered with a few early-weekend revelers, to see what we can find.
Nettles, the type we were taught to steer clear from as children, are one of the first plants we look at. Once they have flowered they can aggravate the gut, but when coming up fresh you can use nettles in any recipe that uses spinach, but to a much more nutritious effect. Think pestos and in gnocchi dishes, steamed or stir-fried – Jason says you can even squash it in your hands and eat it raw, if feeling peckish and adventurous.
Despite foraging’s many advocates, including the team at the Clove Club, Ink, Fera, Koya and Lyles, one of British cuisine’s food heroes Rowley Leigh is not so infatuated with the concept.
His stance, as communicated in a recent Financial Times column, is formed through a fear that wild food will become another brand or luxury item, and, in so doing, will devalue more well-known produce, compounded with a belief that many of these new ingredients ‘do not actually taste very nice.’
Jason from Forage Wild Food city foraging in Finsbury Park
Jason’s view is that creating a use for these plants that would either be cut down or ignored can’t be a bad thing, and the flavours you get from these lesser-known plants can be exceptionally interesting.
Jason puts a sprig of Mugwort under my nose – a purple-y Germanic plant used to stuff geese with or make rice cakes out of – the scent is blissfully aromatic, related to Absinthe and Wormwood.
A juniper bush smells just like gin, and this foreign edge of Finsbury Park becomes all the more familiar.
A Juniper bush – another great scent found city foraging
‘In the Second World War people used to suck the bottom of these for sugar as people weren’t getting sweets because it was harder to import sugar,’ Jason says, pointing to some White Dead Nettles, ‘you can get the nectar from the bottom, there’s none at the moment though because its winter.’
We pass Hogweed, that you can fry like crispy seaweed and use the bud like cauliflower, but can cause vicious burns, and Hemlock, often confused with Cow Parsley, a plant so poisonous it takes less than a teaspoon of the seeds to kill a human, making me suddenly glad I am accompanied by Jason and his impressive botanic knowledge.
‘Go foraging with someone who knows what they’re doing, it is helpful to see plants when they’re growing and where they grow and to learn some of the basics and skills of botany, like their leaf shape and plant families. I always say don’t eat anything if you don’t know what it is and only eat it if you’re 100% sure its edible,’ is Jason’s advice.
The most instantly gratifying find of our city-foraging trip are the ripening rose hips, the fruit of the rose plant that bud after successful pollination. Gently pluck the fruit from the stems and squeeze just the tip, avoiding the seeds that irritate the throat, and a bright, tart, fruity paste forms – pure fun to eat on the spot or to make into a syrup (great for aperitifs), jam or tea – another Second-World-War favourite.
Although foraging may be a big trend for the restaurant industry (as we will be exploring in Foraging Part II), Jason thinks that as individuals in Britain, we have culturally lost the tradition.
In Italy, Poland and Romania, everyone goes out for mushrooms and truffles and knows where all the wild plants are, while here there’s a fear of plants being poisonous – if it’s not bagged and labeled, it’s not seen as safe. But he remains optimistic about the impact of this food trend, ‘I’m hoping for more people going outside and thinking about where their food comes from, what the nutrition of their food is and the impact it has.’