What’s the point of foraging?
Foraging requires you to get outside and develop a relationship with nature, the importance of which has been highlighted by a body of evidence demonstrating the hugely beneficial impacts spending time in nature can have on our social and emotional well-being. Now that the clocks have gone forward and the days are drawing in, foraging gives us an incentive to get outdoors, rather than hibernating in our houses. Even a half-hour stroll in a city park can significantly reduce levels of stress and anxiety, especially if your phone is left behind. And when you’re foraging, you’re required to do the opposite of staring down at a screen as your eyes will be scanning the environment for its wild food offerings. In doing this, the pace of life can slow down for a moment as you become more connected with your surroundings and gain a deeper understanding of seasonality and the transient nature of life.
Cooking with ingredients you have gathered with your own hands, an act humans have carried out for the majority of time and only lost touch with recently, is immensely fulfilling and rewarding. Wild ingredients generally aren’t available on supermarket shelves and therefore, by foraging, you are opening up the potential to incorporate interesting, unusual and complex flavours to your cooking. They can also be used to make natural remedies, with much history in folk-medicine, naturally offering the support our bodies need through the year as the seasons change. What’s more, they don’t cost a penny and come package and carbon-footprint free, making them a highly sustainable food source.
Can you really forage for food in a city like London?
I only have to take a couple of steps out of my front door in Battersea to find an edible delight; copper sorrel, Oxalis corniculate, with deep copper leaves, vibrant yellow flowers and a refreshing tart-apple flavour. After a thorough wash, the leaves are zingy addition to a winter salad or an attractive garnish to both sweet and savoury dishes.
Beyond the front door, avoid picking foods growing in very close proximity to busy roads as they are likely polluted. Instead, wander to London’s public green spaces, such as one of the city’s many parks or commons and see what plants, herbs and fruits you can find. Hampstead Heath, Battersea Park and Wimbledon Common are just a small example of good foraging locations. Note foraging is banned in Royal Parks and permission is required in some locations but that otherwise we are legally allowed to collect wild foods growing in public spaces for personal consumption. Only ever take what you need and leave enough behind for the wildlife and others to have their share. To learn more about foraging responsibly and sustainably, read the Woodland Trust’s guidelines
Some of my favourite finds available now
Below are some examples of easily identifiable wild foods nature has on offer this November. A note on foraging and safety: do not eat a wild food unless you are 100% certain what it is; guided foraging is a good way to get started and I always encourage cross-referencing multiple sources of knowledge. Also never assume that because one part of a plant is edible, the rest is safe to eat. Eg. the berries may be edible but the leaves may be toxic.
The medlar is a small deciduous tree which was popular in medieval times. Its fruit is rusty brown in colour, roughly the size of a golf ball, with an open calyx – they are slightly bizarre looking!
Harvest medlars in late autumn while they are still firm. They are best eaten once they have been ‘bletted’ which means ‘to make soft’. To do this, lay in a single layer in a wooden box and leave in a cool dark place for about 2 weeks. At this point, they will appear dark brown and over-ripe and give a lovely date-caramel flavour to jellies and preserves.
All roses are edible and different varieties produce different shaped hips (the fruit after flowering) which can be varying shades on red. Pictured are rosa rogosa hips. In hedgerows you will more commonly find rosa canina (wild dog rose) hips, which are bright red and oval-shaped with a black tip.
They have a lovely floral apple flavour which makes an exquisite wild syrup. What’s more, they are packed full of vitamin C, over 20x that of oranges weight-for-weight, and antioxidants, the perfect natural boost for the arrival of colder weather.
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn bush, found growing wild in hedgerows. The prickly bushes produce small, dark navy berries which are slightly soft when ripe and ready to pick. This year I found a bumper crop at the perimeter of Battersea Park – the yield can vary a lot year-on-year.
Sloe berries are extremely tart and tannic, they’re enjoyed raw by birds and insects, but need transforming before we can consume them! Try infusing them into gin, to make a superb winter tipple. The leftover gin sloes after straining the gin can then be made into fruit pastels, very grown-up, zero-waste sweets!
Sweet chestnut trees are a common sight in our city parks; they stand tall with long toothed leaves hanging down from their branches. When ripe the nuts fall from the tree to the ground, their green spiky cases splitting open to reveal wonderful shiny amber-brown nuts with one flat side. A very versatile ingredient; they can be roasted and added to vegetable dishes, made into a nut-milk, ground and turned into flour for baking, or pureed and incorporated into a risotto or combined with some maple to make a comforting winter sweet. Endless opportunities!
Head to my recipe section for some ideas of how to use the above-mentioned wild ingredients…
The Edible City: A year of wild food by John Rensten
The forager’s Calendar by John Wright
Wild food: a complete forager’s guide by Rodger Phillips
London spots putting wild food on the menu:
Native Restaurant, Southwark
Flat Earth Pizzas, Bethnal Green
Come to my next supper clubs, Fulham, 20th & 21st November