How to Forage For Delicious Ingredients in London
If you’re curious about foraging but don’t really know where to start, John Rensten from Forage London talks about the joy of foraging around your hood and what to look out for. If you need ideas for what to do with your foraged finds, some make great garnishes in a G&T, as Seedlip explains…
The Resident: Why forage?
John Rensten: Good question… There are numerous reasons to go foraging, not least of all because of the nutritional profile of wild food which outstrips almost everything you can buy in a supermarket.
Essentially wild food is superfood. Nettles and hazelnuts, for example, are really high in protein, and grow all over the country.
Leaving nutrition aside, anything that helps us engage with the outdoors in a meaningful and active way is a good thing for our general health and our mental health.
Picking wild food creates emotional relationships with landscapes and people – who previously had no particular opinion on the topic – become ecological stewards, guardians and protectors of their local green spaces, be those urban or rural.
About five years ago I started learning and practising mindfulness and it immediately occurred to me that actually I’ve been teaching mindfulness for over a decade. Taking groups of people into urban green spaces, helping them focus on tiny details, tastes, smells, sounds, and at the same time looking at the wider pictures of ecology environmentalism and sustainability. Foraging is an activity that puts you very much in the present tense and as such it has mindfulness at its core.
Why else should we forage? It’s fun, it’s something great to do with friends and family, going out and picking your own food and then coming back and eating it together is extremely rewarding. Foraging is the topic that dovetails into so many others: cookery, permaculture, herbal medicine, sustainability, first-aid, self-reliance, botany… I could go on!
How did you get into foraging?
On the first full moon of the new millennium I met a girl in a bar in London and after six or eight weeks of seeing each other, going to lots of parties and being very ‘London’ we decided we would go to the countryside for a weekend together to find out if we really liked each other.
We were walking through the woods in Hampshire and she began pointing out a few edible and a few poisonous mushrooms. I think I knew that I was already falling in love but wrapped up in this was how hugely impressed I was that this girl who appeared to be 100 percent urbanite was actually a country girl in disguise.
My journey into foraging began that day and pretty soon became my obsession. Twenty-two years later Ellie and I are still together and we live in Dorset with our nine-year-old son Oscar.
what are some of the more unusual foods you can forage?
Nature is cyclical, as one plant is coming into season so another one is coming to its end, with multiple overlaps. The winter, for example, which people think of as a fellow period for collecting wild food, is in fact abundant when it comes to foraging for numerous wild salad greens.
Just to name a few, plants such as sorrel, curled dock, wild chervil, sweet violet, primrose, three cornered leek, crow garlic, winter cress, chickweed, sticky weed, cherry plum blossoms, wood aven’s roots (tastes like cloves) and mahonia flowers all come into season in the colder months, and with the weather relatively warm for this time of year, I’m sure the birch sap will be rising very soon.
Many of these plants become bigger and more flavoursome as we come into the early spring and then as the season develops they become woody, more robust and sometimes bitter.
At this point in the year plenty of other plants are just beginning their journey; numerous species of wild spinach come into leaf on the salt marshes all around the coast line of this country, succulent plants like samphire, sea purslane and sea beat start to appear.
Even the first few chanterelle mushrooms start to pop up in the woods as early as May. And so it goes on, all year round, just as the elderflower blossoms are going, the linden blossoms are coming out. On a good year they overlap and it’s possible to make an elderflower and lime blossom champagne.
Some of the more bizarre things to forage are made so by their location. For example, I have picked olives from a London street tree in January, salted them and was able to eat them by March.
January is also a good month to collect velvet shank mushrooms. They grow on dead or dying deciduous trees and when cooked taste like a cross between mushroom and caramel. One of the most bizarre things I have ever foraged was a 1.5 kilogram porcini mushroom…it was absolutely massive!
What is foraging like in London?
London is absolutely fantastic for foraging. It has almost unlimited open green spaces to choose from and a microclimate to enhance growth and extend growing seasons.
Coupled with the huge array of wild plants, there are also all the unintentionally edible varieties, things planted by Victorian or modern park planners that turn out to have an edible or medicinal usage. Then there’s all the feral plants; garden escapees that are thriving in the semi wild.
Before I left London five years ago, I wrote a blog called What I Learned From Clissold Park, my most local green space and my foraging tutor for over a decade. To finish the blog off I decided to write a list of all the plants that I had foraged from this one square mile of almost central London and it came in at about 180 species.
I’m sure if I had stayed close to it I would be well over 200 by now. But as with all foraging, safety and common sense is hugely important.
Where are some of London’s foraging hotspots?
Greater London is an astonishing 47 percent open or green space. There are so many parks, commons, public gardens and weird little bits of land that don’t even really have an adequate description, so you have an unlimited amount of places to go foraging.
Providing you do a bit of common sense homework and have a little look into the history of the land on which you are foraging and any potential hazards, you have a vast selection of locations in London.
But the very best place for anybody to go foraging is their most local green space. This is the place that they will become familiar with, that they will learn from, that they will be able to watch plants as they move through the various different stages of development, producing multiple food crops as they go – leaves then shoots then flowers then seeds and so on and so forth.
Anybody who lives between Peckham Rye And Burgess Park is most certainly in urban foraging heaven. Between these two locations probably just a couple of miles apart there are 19 open green spaces to choose from.
three plants you can forage in London & use in Drinks
1 Wood Avens
Wood avens are a plant but the usable and forageable part is the scruffy, wispy root. They belong to the same family as strawberries and have trifoliate (three-part) leaves, yellow five-petalled flowers and a red burr.
A very common plant, they typically grow in many places such as hedgerows, gardens, verges, woodland edges, car park edges and commons. So you’ll be able to find them across London, but blackberry picking season, in autumn, is the best time to dig them up.
The plant likes to grow in the same type of soil as brambles as well, so can be found growing beneath the prickly shrub.
Drink suggestion: Try garnishing a Spice 94 gin and tonic with an orange slice and wood avens. When dried, the roots have an amazing aroma that is similar to that of cloves. By drying the roots you compress and intensify the flavour – it’s also better to snap off the thicker parts of the root if you want a more intense flavour.
Seedlip Spice 94 is distilled with cardamom and allspice berries, and by garnishing your this tipple with dried wood avens root, you get this marriage of warming spice flavours. First you note the clove, almost nutmeg like aroma of the garnish, before getting the allspice, woody notes from the gin.
You could try making a clove root syrup by heating equal parts sugar and water, and the rest of your wispy clove root. Strain and add 10ml to your glass for some sweetness.
2 Linden Blossom
Linden is a very tall tree which has heart-shaped leaves that are thin and waxy on top. It produces pale yellow blossoms with pale green elongated bracts that join the flowers’ stems.
As it is not native to London, it will be found growing where it has been artificially planted, such as park avenues. Linden is an extremely prolific tree which grows in avenues of most, if not all, London parks.
The best way to identify linden is that when elderflower season comes to an end, linden blossom comes out ( around late May/early June). However, it’s important to note that elderflower and linden do not grow in the same types of environment (elder is a scruffy tree which typically grows in hedgerows).
Drink suggestion: Try using linden blossom as a garnish in a Grove gin and tonic. You might know linden as the flower that can make your car sticky with the sweet nectar that drips from their flowers, but it also has a warm, floral honey-like aroma.
It has a slight herbaceous, sweet floral note which goes hand in hand with the uplifting spices in this gin. It’s distilled with three varieties of orange, ginger and lemongrass, and so has a citrussy brightness and a cool prickle from the spices. Linden blossom not only makes an eye-catching, pretty garnish but it will draw out some of the drink’s natural sweetness.
3 Wild Chervil/Cow Parsley
Wild chervil is a herbaceous plant with feathery, carrot-like leaves.
It is important to note that wild chervil is related to hemlock (which is poisonous), and so, it’s best to forage wild chervil in January/February as hemlock isn’t in season. But for first-time foragers, be careful and forage the herb with somebody who knows their stuff and has foraged wild chervil before!
The herb is also very prolific and grows in many different environments, such as grassland and park edges. Wild chevril grows in the same conditions as dandelions (although not in symbiosis) and you’ll find it’s feathery green carrot-top leaves across the city in any semi-wild grassland, from roadsides to park edges.
Drink suggestion: Garnish a glass of Garden 108 gin and tonic with a sprig of wild chervil. When you snap the leaves and inhale the scent, it has a fresh aroma similar to lemon, apples, pears. The gin is distilled using peas, hay, mint, thyme and rosemary; it is comparable to the British countryside with savoury, grassy notes. Wild chervil is a great garnish to use for this gin as the two flavours come together to form a sensory overload – fresh green notes on the nose before those herbaceous, freshly picked garden flavours on the palate.