Foraging was the first and most important skill I have learnt with Transition, my first connection with nature and something that will stay with me for life. Part of the staple knowledge and diet of generations past, it is a re-emerging practise, even in in the urban environment of London.
A surburban child and inner city adult, my perception of the outdoors was the ranks of perfect flowers in neighbours’ front gardens, manicured park lawns, hoeing weeds, paving stones and concrete.
A few years ago, having just moved close to Hampstead Heath, I joined a Transition foraging course with teacher Miles Irving, author of The Forager Handbook, and over four days in four seasons learnt what to pick and how to cook the wild food growing all around me. Observing the same plants through the seasons, learning when they were good to eat, when the would flower, go to seed, turn spindly and woody, gave me – before I began to learn to grow food – my first real understanding of seasonality and the cycle of perennial plants.
Hampstead Heath became not only a place to walk and a set of experiences – birthday and midsummer picnics, the playground where I took my son, the paddling pool and swimming ponds, sledging in winter, watching fireworks from Parliament Hill in autumn. But another layer of my consciousness developed, connected to the plants and trees, where they grew and how they changed through the year. So the path up to Parliament Hill is where I find wild chervil, starting in late February, so thick and abundant by April it is a struggle to walk through it. The small stream is where three-cornered garlic grows for a short season and the better-known ramsoms (wild garlic) is in a large patch by the big tree nearby. Further up is patience dock, more pointed than its better known reliever-of-nettle-stings sister leaf, and without the red edges. My son once asked me if we were picking it because we were too poor to buy spinach. Kenwood’s lawns are wild sorrel. Spring and autumn are young nettles, growing everywhere, but the largest patches are on the shady side along the path up the hill beyond the playground.
Winter is always Alexanders – fragrant wild celery on both sides of the centre path, and another patch on the far side of the Heath under the trees. My son could lead me to it before he turned four, and it is a winter staple, its leaves shining bright green even through thick snow. When we started Transition Dartmouth Park, one of our first experiences as a core group, was an Alexanders-picking outing, which together with garlic mustard leaves that survived the cold, and mint and lemon balm from our gardens, we made into wild pesto to serve at our launch party. I loved being able to pass on this skill as there is little more exciting than suddenly discovering, leaves you walk past daily and were unable to decipher, have names, become familiar friends, and taste delicious.
Last spring I learnt to cook Japanese knotweed, a plant so strong and virulent it can undermine buildings and uproot concrete pavements. It is sprayed by homeowners and councils but can be dried and ground into flour. It could be a staple carbohydrate should we choose to embrace rather than destroy it. Young, raw and sliced thinly, it is sharp and celery-like, and can be used in salads. For a stall Transition Dartmouth Park were invited to do at Parliament Hill farmers market, we chopped and cooked the young stalks with sugar and made sweet knotweed tarts. Prepared like this it tastes like rhubarb, and those who dared to try it were pleasantly surprised.
In September I travelled to the Arctic to witness the lowest levels of summer sea ice in history. I saw a sea of white breaking up, fragmenting and melting into the black sea beneath, understood the emergency and the consequences for our future. Nothing grew there but standing in the monochrome landscape, in my mind I saw the bright colours of the autumn berries that would be waiting on my return home. Late summer and autum are spawling blackberries, the sloe trees overhanging the bathing pond, walls of hawthorn, elderberries and ripe rosehips on the paths up the hill and alongside the lido, to be picked and made into red, pink and purple jams. And this is what foraging has taught me – the seasons go on, plants and trees blossom, grow new leaves, bear fruit, seed and then die until the next year. No matter what.
Last week the Social Reporters had our first meeting in a long time. For me it was the first time I had met most of them, and was thrilled to be able to host them in Dartmouth Park. Early that day I went running and foraging on the Heath, to make wild pesto for our lunch. Surrounded by thick early morning mist, I found myself as joyously lost as it is possible for me to be, and guided only by the sight of a clump of trees where I once celebrated midsummer, the surprise of the stream sooner than I thought I would see it. Gathering end-of-season Alexanders and my first chervil of the year, I was asked, as I often am, by someone wishing to know about the plants I was picking. What once was common knowledge was somehow lost, but it is something we can still get back.