One of the wettest winters and the coldest springs on record has done wonders for foragers this year. The branches heave with wild plums, mulberries and sloe. Blackberries swell to a behemoth, tufts of wild garlic carpet banks of canals and clumps of rosehips line the lanes.
Go on then. Only five days. It's going to be easy peasy.
I was to live for a five days on food foraged in London, specifically in my own borough of Greenwich with a concessionary £5 thrown in. After all, I had lived off the land before in Scotland and wasn't I always harping on about how wonderfully lush and bountiful Greenwich was?
Four years ago I took to a year of odd jobs in rural Scotland after university. A handyman here, a woodcutter there, a waiter and a butler; the pay though miserable, was more than made up by the warmth of locals and the stunning scenery.
In between jobs, a marasmic backpack slung and a stout pair of assault boots donned, I tramped. I had spent nights in the Cairngorms, with dinners of dock leaves stuffed with bright yellow chanterelle mushrooms seasoned with wild lemon balm and garlic. Mugs of nettle soup thawed the bones on the open bog of Forsinard. Choice mussels and kelp plucked from the seaside cliffs in Caithness helped weather the salt and seafoam licked town of Wick. The stash of Snickers helped too.
Now I know that a five day long diet of urban foraging is hardly heroic. Britain is not British Columbia and I am no Bear Grylls. Also, I am certainly not as brave as Fergus Drennan, the prolific forager who is living on a 100% diet of wild foraged food.
But would I, a man of voracious appetite and a slave to the microwave and doner kebab life in London survive a five day diet on urban shrubs?
4th September 2013, Greenwich, London | Reserve: £5
With gardening gloves, a stout pair of scissors, and plastic bags popped over to Vanbrugh Park for the day's picking. Clumps of nettles grow by the road. Of all edible urban plants, nettles are the most plentiful and its devotees numerous. By now the nettle leaves have matured and there are hardly any young leaves to show. I snipped the top bit steering clear of dog height. A tidy bushel of nettles picked, I turned my attention to the dock leaves that are almost always present next to nettles. On a lucky find back home a stooping branch by the house provided a bunch of elderberries. The untended council estate grounds across yielded a handful of hogweed. These had to be dealt with gingerly as the sap can cause severe allergic reactions. Washed and boiled, both the nettles and the hogweed made for an excellent broth.
Kneeling on shingled shores, combing through her hedges and stalking her moors, wading through riparian streams that meander and criss cross her heartland, foragers keep alive a very practical tradition. In the cities though we lag behind the continentals that make foraging a weekend affair. We of the cities sniff at this sublime pass time of sifting through thorny brambles in the dying autumn light. Yet foraging is and remains a quintessential marker of British history; austerity Britain of the Second World War with rosehip jam and daffodil chutney, rough and tumble of scouts out on bramble picking and the florid faced Lincolnshire poacher with a pheasant and a stash of dock leaves tucked under his sleeve.
5th September 2013
I headed over to Woolwich. The Olympic glory has faded and that miasma so peculiar to the place is back, but this infamous borough is bursting with possibilities. In a wooded part of Plumstead ringed by tower blocks, I found a clump of teenagers with a Tesco bag plucking blackberries. One balanced on other's shoulder reached for a thicket of mulberries high above. The faux swagger gone, the precocious self-consciousness evaporated, the manufactured gruff scrubbed; for that sun dappled September noon that meager plot of blackberries, mulberries, plums, and sloe is ointment. It gladdens the heart to see nuggets of brambles, nettles, wild garlic, sloe, plums and berries. I am almost sorted for the week with what Woolwich has given today.
Foraging in the city is a pleasant series of hurdles. Whereas even in the unfamiliar patch country one knows where to expect what; in the bog lands, in marshes by the riverbanks. In cities everything is a medley.
Our daily reminders of what Britain are slideshows of urban decay. Her plasticine towns are shown as encroaching upon like stout splatters of ink on blotted paper on the countryside. Her reeling, her rolling, her rambling, the drunkard's country roads might now very well run straight to private country estates. Tescos might very well stand where there might have been a warren. Still, plenty of it remains. And we must take to it.
Nothing short of a miracle; wild cherries that haven't fallen off hang off the tree in the Oxleas Woods. A chap in wellies walking by a dour looking terrier came over and warned me against eating them. They are ornamental cherries he said and could give me a nasty tummy ache. What utter hogwash. I thanked him and then pocketed a few. Cooking apples or baking apples were harder to find. Misshapen, pockmarked and cratered with pecks and worm holes, they didn't look too appetising. I found three lying at the base of the tree and didn't pluck any more as they were still rather unripe at this stage.
Ah, that sublime pastime of sifting through thorny brambles in the dying summer light. I am an immigrant. I come from the heat and dust of the Indian plains. Our towns and cities are devouring each other, our rivers polluted and our plants toxic. Fruits are almost always a strictly private affair and even if it weren't so, I can't imagine the Indian middle classes in the cities shaking down mango trees and collecting fallen jamun. To forage in Britain is to be reminded how plentiful the country is. Yet, with food banks on the rise and the crisis deepening, we are so immune to the charms of plenty that we pay a huge price for that box of blackberries in the supermarket.
I have got to do something about calories as I haven't been getting enough of it. I am going to dig into the reserve of £10 and get myself a crumble mix for the three tupperware boxes worth of blackberries from Woolwich.
A period of impoverishment in Edinburgh was like Trainspotting without the Heroin. Leith was dark and smelled of despair. I would walk through Dean's Village daily, the well scrubbed houses overlooked a brook. And besides the brook, through crevices and in nooks and crannies did I find dinner; Berries and daisies, mushrooms and nettles.
8th September | Reserve: £2.50ish
I have stayed away from mushrooms though if you ever want to get into urban mushroom foraging do have a look at Fungi to be With's quirky website. Thankfully today I found a clump of wild goosegrass in Sheperdleas Wood. Dug into the reserve for a bag of flour and had a lovely dinner of goosegrass soup seasoned with wild garlic and mint that I found by the leafy Shooters Hill Road.
I found that there was no way I could survive on foraging alone in London. But I could certainly bypass buying ridiculously overpriced fruits if I planned it right.
You can discover urban foraging for yourself. Meetups.com lists regular free foraging meets bith in the country and the cities all over the UK . If you are in London then Forage London hosts various inexpensive courses to get you started. There are even luxury foraging packages. Urban Forager has a UK wide map of where to get your next fix of wild quince and plum. Send us your favourite places to forage in the cities and of course don't forget the recipes.
And remember, the next time you think you are too busy to forage, walk by that straggly bramble bush by the roadside, pluck a berry, bring it home and give it a wash. You would be surprised.