Wood came before concrete, yet somehow we have evolved to navigate better through the streets than the woodlands: through Tesco Metro supermarket aisles better than our own back gardens. We know how important our survival is to us and how much we love to be outdoors on the rare occasions the British weather allows, but the current priorities of city living mean that if it wasn’t for the conveyor belt food culture that provides for us, we’d be left, quite frankly, starving – without a clue of what to do. Why is it that our ability to self sustain has dwindled? How is it, that if one day we ventured down to the Sainsburys Local and the shelves were empty, we’d be left with an empty stomach and not even a morsel of knowledge as to how to engage with our natural surroundings to fill it?
To be creative with what surrounds us is to look more carefully at the land we live in, make it our friend and understand how best to work with it…
In a house of five in Dalston, we struggle to keep the lawn mowed, let alone cultivate our own vegetables. Self sufficiency is selecting a recipe from Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals and finding the supermarket which sells its ingredients. It’s knowing where to get good food stuffs over knowing how to. So, bar the staple herbs out the back that pretty much look after themselves, or the token chilly plant on the kitchen window sill – the garden is a leisurely space made for sun lounging, booze and barbecues. But, even if we don’t have time to consider how we can put our hands and lands to use in this way, when we venture away from our doorsteps and into the wild, we generally have little idea of where to begin. Anything that’s not grass in a patch of land discarded as ‘weeds,’ an unfamiliar berry regarded ‘inedible.’ And this is symptomatic of the way we have learnt to see. With little time on our hands to observe our surroundings more closely, us city dwellers and townsfolk grow estranged to the lands in which we live. Commuters in the walk down by the river, laid out in the back garden simply for sun, irritated by the overgrowth of weeds. But, to what extent can we connect with our surroundings and be creative with what nature provides us?
It was only a few steps into the Foraging walk as part of Edible Landscapes last week and we’d already been pulled to a halt by Joan Yeardon, the local Permaculturist and expert on anything wild and edible. She was pointing to a pot full of Calendula from afar, explaining how over the years it has been used medicinally. Although this one’s not edible, we’re amazed by its brightness and versatility. To ‘forage’ is to obtain food or provisions by searching, and everyone on this walk is keen to make this more of a possibility. As we head towards the River Lea, we’re quickly fascinated by what we’re encouraged to see. We’re handed a bunch of Mahonia, a deep purple berry formerly considered to be ‘poisonous,’ so it’s a bit odd as we’re passed it to eat. It’s bitter, with a light green pulp and nowhere near as sweet as it looks, but it’s ‘perfect for jams and slows’ explains Joan enthusiastically.
We’re only on your average Homerton roadside and already we’ve got in a pickle with the Cleavers (a.k.a Sticky Willies). But we’re soon soothed by the soft scent of Lemon Balm – identified, crushed with the fingers and tickling our noses. A trip on a foraging walk like this encourages us to get searching – as if one were stepping out of the realms of the ordinary and into a Secret Garden that those who are interested in can see. Just a minute’s walk into the park, we’re halted by what appears to be a harmless bush, yet on inspection it’s much more than it appears to be. ‘Look with your eyes not your hands’ Joan says, as we’re familiarized with the instrument of Aristotle’s assassination – namely Hemlock, an unusual suspect that blends in with the rest of the green, but is actually incredibly noxious. Joan picks it up, glove clad and places it within safe distance. It’s chemical smelling and has light black ink splats along the stalk which helps us identify. We listen from afar as she explains to us this is something we ‘definitely shouldn’t attempt to eat.’
As we stroll down paths at an extremely slow speed, covering just a small patch of land, Joan points out the forest of resources available to us. Nettles for which to make gruel or pesto; Dead Nettles which can be used in the same way as Spinach; Elderflower from which to make cordial, champagne or vinegar; a handful of different strains of garlic that smell truly wonderful and are warming and flavoursome when we let ourselves go enough to tuck in to the treat. A flowering pear tree; Dandelion petals, that when mixed with Elderflower are a cure for hayfever; the glowing blush of Hawthorn amongst the leaves to flavour jellies, jams and syrups. We’re completely astounded by the abundance and plenitude of what populates the area and we start to collect up bunches of what we realize we can use for feed.
ALL AROUND EXPERT, JOAN YEARDON, GUIDE AT EDIBLE LANDSCAPES
DANDELION AND GARLIC
THREE CORNERED LEEK
In conversation with the founder of Edible Landscapes, Jo Homan, whose aim is to get Londoners more engaged with their surroundings and begin to grow their own food, it becomes clear that foraging is still more of a sport than a way of life in the UK (unlike Italy and Greece, where permaculture and foraging are more of a necessity.) Working alongside places such as The Kabin at Hackney Marshes and enthusiasts like Joan, the aim is to create a community of people interested in reviving our bonds with nature and pulling up the magnifying glass on our green patches, so we can understand them better and use them in our lives more creatively.
TRY IT YOURSELF
Get out there beyond your Tesco Metro and walk further – near your house or around the park. Find the wild spots and try to look carefully to identify what exactly it is you can see. It might feel like a hobby to begin with and definitely more of a challenge than calling upon the Supermarket Attendant to locate your ingredients, but starting to engage more deeply with nature and understand what it is we are surrounded by, is probably one of the most sensible and responsible things we can do.
-Like that Garden app for smart phones can be downloaded to take pictures of flowers and plants and identify what it is that you can see. Download here.
-Podcast on foraging and permaculture Listen to the Founder of Edible Landscapes, Jo Homan on Shoreditch Radio
-The Scented Kitchen – Cooking with flowers recipes and how to book. More info here.
–Join the next Foraging Walk to have a go yourself and learn more about how to identify, collect and even prepare your own food.
By Maxine Clay