The heart of London might seem like an unlikely place to forage for food, but writer Rachel de Thample is always finding tasty things to eat in the city.
“I’ve been teaching wild food cookery at Made in Hackney. We do plant identification and talk about the etiquette of foraging and safety, then we get into the kitchen and make loads of stuff,” she says.
“I forage a lot in Crystal Palace where I live and I’ve built up my knowledge about the local area, but when you go to another part of the city you don’t know what’s there.”
Rachel recentIy took her class to Abney Park, which is actually a cemetery just off Stoke Newington High Street.
“It’s really crowded and polluted and urban, but outside the gates just coming through cracks in the pavements we must have identified at least a dozen things growing,” Rachel says.
“There was a a big European lime tree which you can eat the flowers, buds and leaves off, so there’s stuff growing everywhere.”
The city streets are packed with delicious things to eat, according to Rachel. “Chickweed grows in the cracks in the pavement, you get wood sorrel, which most people just think is clover but has a lovely lemony flavour like sorrel. You get wild sorrel, wild fennel, dandelions, which actually are delicious.
“On my Made in Hackney course in the summer we made dandelion butter. Made in Hackney is vegan so it was quite a nice vegan substitute for butter you just blend dandelion petals with coconut oil and salt and it makes a really beautiful butter. We had it with wild garlic and nettle gnocchi.”
Nettle and hazelnut gnocchi with dandelion butter
The flavours in wild food are complex and the health benefits are really great and their deep roots mean that they can access minerals that annual plants just can’t.
“They’re also more resistant to storms as their deep roots mean that they’re not so easily washed away and they can reach deeper water sources under the ground.”
Does pollution affect foraged food in the city?
Not if you’re comparing it to conventional (non-organic) crops: “They’re covered in this quite scary looking blue coating – quite often if you buy seeds from the garden centre you can see this coating on them, so it looks like a pill. Like something you would take as medicine. There have been studies which show that this coating is just as bad as pollution that you would get from cars.”
According to Rachel, London’s actually one of the greenest cities in the world so it’s a good place to forage: ”In my neck of the woods where you can feel like you’re lost in the wilderness in some parks, like Brockwell Park and you can’t see any buildings.
“There’s one view from Brockwell Park where you can only see a church steeple and you could easily be in an English village, but then you turn the other way and you see the whole London skyline.”
Wild cherry and elderflower pickles
What to forage for in late autumn
There’s still plenty of food out there even in late October and early November, including sloes, damsons, hazelnuts and cobnuts.
“I do a lot of foraging in West Dorset near Bridport and there’s loads of cobnuts there in early August. You can get walnuts as well. October is peak season for sweet chestnuts which grow in London as well as in the countryside, says Rachel.
If you find an abundant tree, keep an eye out for it before they peak because as soon as they’re ready the squirrels will be on them, so it’s a bit of a bun fight with the squirrels!
Watch out for quince and apples. Apples will go right to the end of the year and even into spring, depending on the variety.
Look out for rosehips – Rachel usually waits until there’s been a frost to pick them because they get soft.
She says: “To extract maximum flavour you need to blitz them up, but if they’re really hard you’ll break your blender.
“If you let them get soft you get more of a rosy paste and it’s really beautiful, really gorgeous.”
You can find medlars you can find in the wild, which arelike a medieval apple. They’re really delicious, but Rachel advises letting them get them quite ripe.
It’s called ‘bletting’ and you have to wait until they’re on the verge of being rotten before eating them.
“I did that last year and let them blet in my house, but I think it was too warm because they went really dry,” Rachel says.
Calendula and lemon verbena garden foraged detox tea
You sometimes get late waves of fresh nettles, which are high in iron and protein too and shepherd’s purse, which has tiny heart-shaped leaves with little seeds in them.
Some of the things Rachel likes to eat would be classed as weeds, but she’s not keen on that description. “A technical definition of a weed is a plant growing in the wrong place.”
Some sources of food are surprising. “Foraging is such a vast field that you’re always learning and you can always pick up new things.
“They always freak me out, but you can eat yew berries, but yews are very poisonous – the bark and leaves, but the red berries are edible.”
Hawberries from hawthorn are still around and in the depths of winter you have acorns which you can use to make flour or coffee, but they’re very tannic so you have to boil them in several changes of water – at least three times before they’re really palatable.
“You can grind them down to make coffee, which is quite nice but a bit of a labour of love if you’re doing it on a small scale,” Rachel says.
“You can buy it in health food shops and it has a flatter flavour than instant coffee. Dandelion roots can also be scrubbed, roasted and ground into a coffee. Again, you can buy a version in a health food shop.”
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Forager and food writer Rachel de Thample
The foraging life
Once you get into the habit of foraging, it’s very difficult to stop. Rachel even finds herself foraging and cooking even when she’s on holiday and tends to stay in places that have kitchens.
“Even if I’m staying in a hotel I’ll find a way to make something,” she says.
In the city, Rachel’s always on the look out for wild food. “When I’m out and about and see something that’s delicious, I’ll either eat it straight away or bundle up and handful or a pocketful.
“My son’s nearly 11 and at that age they tend to have their pockets full of sticks and stones, but I’m the one with the pockets full of leaves or seeds for different fruits.”
In early autumn, Rachel likes to pick fuchsia berries, which is quite frustrating because they’re usually growing in people’s gardens, but sometimes they overhang the path and she can grab a few.
“I have actually gone and knocked on people’s doors and asked if they know that they’ve got all this food in their garden, because normally they just don’t know.”
Rachel’s activities often attract curious passers-by and she’s always happy to give them an impromptu lesson about the food she’s gathering: “The other day I was picking rosehips and someone came over to ask what I was picking and what do you do with it.
“When I’m picking crab apples near someone’s house and they’ll come over and say that they’ve always wondered whether you can eat them.”
She tries to keep her cooking simple, but also tries to be quite playful. Rachel learnt a lot from her time working in the kitchen at The Fat Duck and she really likes the playfulness of Heston Blumenthal’s food.
“He’s cooking at Michelin star level whereas my food is the opposite of that. It’s very accessible to the home cook.”
Rachel de Thample is a cook, forager, preserver and urban gardener and the author of Less Meat, More Veg, FIVE and Tonics & Teas. Follow Rachel on Twitter and Instagram.
Listen to our interview with Rachel de Thample – ‘Making a foraged Christmas feast’ – on iTunes, Stitcher, Acast, TuneIn or Soundcloud.