Foraging, Hedgerow Cookery, Blackberry picking – whatever you like to call it we’re in the midsts of a wild foods revolution. As spring slowly turns to summer there’s an abundance of greens to be had and deliciously sweet fruits will soon be ripe for the picking.
Flavours don’t come much fresher than straight from the field to the plate. Foraging is a very sustainable way to source food. Plus, wild plants are said to be more nutritious than cultivated fruit and vegetables – easing digestion and heartburn, and potentially good for liver disease.
The best part is, you don’t have to trek for miles into the countryside to find these hidden delights. Many are right under our noses in the city… you just have to know where to look, and what you’re looking for…
I arrange to meet forager John Cook and cook and food writer Rosie Birkett at Walthamstow marshes at 7am, before work one morning.
John the Poacher, as he is known, forages all over the city for chefs, chocolate-, cheese-, and gin-makers. He likes to operate a barter system – giant sage leaves in exchange for a few beers on someone else’s tab, or wild garlic for cheese.
John navigates London in a completely unique way and he makes me realise how connected the city is to nature.
“Foraging becomes a compulsion,” he says. “I’ve been on the top deck of a bus, seen a mushroom ring on an estate and just had to get off. I was late to the pub, but arrived bearing gifts.”
For Rosie, wild ingredients root her cooking to seasonality. She says: “Now I’m making a lot of wild green salads, in summer I’ll be baking with lots of fruit.
“Flavours are much more pronounced when ingredients have just been picked. I don’t have a garden so I can’t grow food in London – to get that freshness is amazing.”
Unwittingly, Rosie points this out just as John’s Lurcher, Woody, cocks his leg on the nettles. But in John’s humble opinion a little sprinkle is nothing compared to the pesticides that are sprayed on some commercially produced fruit and veg, and it can be easily rinsed off.
When foraging for nettles, pick them at the point where they naturally wants to snap off – similar to asparagus – to get the best flavours. Wear gloves so that you don’t get stung!
Once washed, blanch the nettles to remove the sting, and revive them in iced water to make a peppery addition to a salad. You can also use them for a nettle and potato soup, or to make nettle beer. (John seems to have the ability to turn a lot of ingredients into beer.)
The marshes, I quickly realise, are a gold mine. John points dandelion which is great for is a wild salad, hogweed that’s lovely fried in butter (don’t touch giant hogweed which burns your skin and makes it permanently sun sensitive), and bright yellow Gorse flower that adds a nice touch of colour to most dishes – and its coconut flavour works well in ice-cream, too.
Foraging newbies should stay away from mushrooms and anything that resembles parsley as an untrained eye could pick a poisonous variety – a drink made from hemlock is the famously reported method of execution of philosopher Socrates. But, as John the Poacher says, “you’ll only kill yourself the once.”
He plays an, admittedly funny, trick by giving me a large chunk of strong Horseradish root to taste. You can use the leaves in salad and grate the root into crème fraiche, to serve with beef or salmon.
In summer you can even compete with squirrels for hazelnuts. And don’t miss the opportunity to collect fragrant elderflower to create cordials and infuse oils, from May. Pick the heads on a sunny day when the pollen is high – and don’t wash them because the pollen is where the flavour is.
The blackberry bushes go on and on. “There’s a lot of competition for blackberries and lots of people pick them when they are tart so you don’t get to have them when they are sweet in late summer,” says John. But, of course, he knows how to find the hidden ones.
We hop over the road to Springfield Park for a patch of wild garlic hidden in the trees. A favourite with chefs all summer long, it’s ready to pick now and is delicious in salads, or simply on pasta with a little rapeseed oil. Just take the stem and leaves from the middle of the patch – and never the root – to allow it to spread. The flavour is beautifully strong when eaten raw but mellows out if you cook it, which brings out its natural sweetness.
There’s more than enough for everybody to share as long as you just take what you need and leave enough for plants to grow again next year…
Book to go foraging with ‘John the Poacher’ from £30pp.
Contact him via instagram @poacher2376; or 07847 565 776