Food’s all around us – we just need to learn how to see it, explains the UK foraging queen Alys Fowler. Read on to learn more about finding food in unusual places
Food is all around us – we just need to learn how to see it. Alys Fowler explains the secret of living off your local landscape
I’ve been less than truthful with my husband for the last couple of years about where our dinners come from. I can see his point – it’s a little weird to go out and forage when there’s a supermarket at the bottom of our road. But I gain so much pleasure from foraging: every leaf, seed and berry that I pick somehow seems to connect me both to my past and future. I think about what my mother has taught me about the outdoors. I think of the many women over millennia that have done this. How our roles have been constructed out of the idea that we’re destined to forage and gather. And I am good at gathering; I can pick fast, note exactly when a bush is ripe with berries, I can climb high into the tree to pick those fat mulberries, and where others see weeds or see nothing at all, I can see our supper.
Foraging, the act of looking for food, helps us to map the world around us, to give it meaning. You do not have to go to the countryside to forage for foods – start by taking a look closer to home, from the weeds in your garden to the trees in your street. In some cases you may do better in a car park than a field.
I have spent many wonderful afternoons gathering wild foods with friends, and then cooking them down to jams and pies. These are good memories and each year I find myself anticipating the ripening of damsons or the next batch of brambles. Let’s face it, the supermarket is never going to be that much fun because someone else has made all the choices for you.
The thing I hear most about foraging is that surely it’s unclean and polluted, particularly if you’re foraging in the city. I’m going to hit this one on the head – supermarket food is no cleaner than things that you forage for. It could possibly be more polluted.
Our current global farming system is in a bit of a mess. It relies on all sorts of less than desirable practices and is less than transparent about what the end product is. If you want to really know about how something is grown, the husbandry practice, about which way the prevailing wind blows (and with it the pollution), you need to ask the growers and see where it is grown. Farmers’ markets are great for this, stuff you grew even better. Or you can go and forage.
Most foraging isn’t about finding food for survival, it’s just about adding some truly diverse and delicious things to your meals. Wild foods can have a pretty powerful effect on your body, not because they are bad, but because they are so raw, for want of a better word, compared to a lot of our processed foods. So be sensible, and perhaps just eat wild things a few times a week.
Wild rocket, perennial wallrocket
Early spring to early winter leaves, early to mid-summer flowers
Wild rocket is perennial so, once you find a patch or get one established in your garden, you’ll have greens pretty much all year round, particularly if you cover your rocket with a cloche between early winter and early spring, as its natural habitat is scrubland in the Mediterranean.
This rocket has a much stronger, spicier flavour than salad rocket and, towards the end of year, it can taste slightly bitter. I love it on top of a sourdough pizza.
How to recognise I first came across this walking along Regent’s Canal in central London where it grows along the base of the walls. There’s enough there to supply a small supermarket. Now that more people are growing it in gardens, expect to see even more. It has much thinner and more deeply lobed leaves than salad rocket. They are usually dark green, sometimes grey-green. Pretty, pale lemon-yellow flowers are up to 20mm wide, cup-shaped when first opened. As the plant matures, it has a woody basal rosette, but the young leaves just sprout from the ground. It’s not to be confused with ragwort and groundsel that can look similar when mature – but have an unpleasant smell when crushed.
What to eat The leaves become tougher as the year goes on. I tend to use them in soups when they get older, added at the last minute and cooked briefly otherwise they’re bitter. The flowers are a pretty addition to salads.
How to grow If you leave rocket, you’ll have it forever as it self-seeds everywhere. Sow seed in situ or in seed trays in spring and thin seedlings to 20cm apart. Give it a shear in mid-summer to keep it in shape or it will flop all over the place.
Flowering quince, Japanese quince
Early to late autumn fruit
Flowering quince is a low-growing shrub that can be clipped into a hedge thorny enough that people don’t tend to walk through it. My best harvests have been in car parks or local municipal plantings and it’s also common in front gardens. It’s got a reputation for being a 70s plant, partly because of the front garden thing, but perhaps it’s time for a garden revival as the fruit is certainly worth searching out.
How to recognise Chaenomeles are deciduous, low-growing spiny shrubs from the mountains of China and Japan – occasionally they’ll grow into a very small tree about 3m tall. They are grown for their attractive, five-petalled saucershaped flowers that appear very early in spring, clustered or singly, and seem to grow straight from the stem as they sometimes appear before the simple alternate leaves.
These are followed later in the year by fruit that are highly aromatic, often waxy, yellow to green or purple-green and a similar shape to the true quince, Cydonia oblonga.
What to eat I’ve mainly experimented with making membrillo (Spanish quince paste) and jelly. Quince lemonade also looks good and makes use of frozen fruit, but I’m a sucker for something really sweet.
You can bake the fruit whole, or use it in crumbles, cobblers and pies. I make a lovely stewed apple and quince mush that is wonderful with vanilla ice cream or yoghurt. You can also use the fruit with lamb in a tagine.
How to grow Chaenomeles are fully hardy shrubs ranging from 1.5–3m high and 2–5m wide. They prefer well-drained soil but are not fussy about fertility and can survive in all sorts of rubbishy ground, as long as they don’t get flooded in winter. Chaenomeles tolerate shade and can be grown against a shady wall, though fruit that has ripened in the sun tends to taste better. They fruit from a young age and are very low maintenance, unless you want to clip them into a hedge.
Late spring to early autumn, leaves and flowers
Borage is a wonderful plant, though some might say it’s a little too wonderful as it quickly self-seeds and, before you know it, you have rather a lot in your garden. However, if you know how to eat it, there’s no such thing as too much, just too little time to cook it all. It doesn’t mind dry, difficult soils and the bees go nuts for the nectar and pollen.
How to recognise This annual has distinctly bristly leaves that are unpleasant to handle when large (a very useful way to make sure you’re picking borage and not young foxgloves that look surprisingly similar, but foxgloves are smooth to touch).
Stout-looking plants will grow to 60cm but are more usually about half that height. Mature, lance-shaped leaves are up to 25cm long, stalkless and clasped around the stem.
Flowers are five-petalled, star-shaped and typically bright blue, though there is a less common white form, B. officinalis ‘Alba’. It flowers all summer long.
What to eat Very small (no more than 3cm long), young leaves are delicious raw in salads where you can taste the clean, cucumber flavour. Larger leaves can be used like spinach and have a buttery flavour. If the leaves are too tough for your liking, rub salt into them until they release their juices and then rinse and soak several times and you’ll find they are much better.
Once the leaves are 10cm long, they tend to be too hairy, so eat the young plants and allow some to flower, as the flowers are edible.
Use the flowers in salads or freeze them in ice cubes for Pimms and other summer drinks. The blue flowers will also dye vinegar blue – in case you ever feel the need to do that.
Note: The leaves contain alkaloids that can cause liver damage. You would have to eat an awful lot of leaves, but as a precaution, if you suffer liver problems, do not eat the leaves or flowers.
When in leaf, eat leaves; when in flower, eat flowers
Now I’m not saying you can ever live on daisies alone – to be honest the flowers don’t taste of much, but they do look lovely. A lawn isn’t a lawn for me without daisies.
How to recognise Daisies only grow in mown or grazed lawns. Clearly, make sure you pick from herbicide-free areas. They are perennial herbs with stout roots, which is why they don’t mind being mown. The leaves are arranged in a basal rosette and are paddle or spoon-shaped. Classic daisy flowers are terminal with white ray florets, often tinged pink, and yellow disc florets.
What to eat You can eat young leaves in salads or sandwiches – some people love them, some don’t. They can also be cooked in soups or stews, and the young flower buds can be preserved as a rather poor caper substitute – they only resemble capers because of the vinegar.
What to grow There are loads of cultivars, such as ‘Tasso’, ‘Strawberries and Cream’, ‘Pomponette’ or ‘Blushing Bride’, which have double flowers and pink variations so they make for interesting decorations. The leaves of these cultivars tend to be larger, but eat with caution if you’ve bought them from a garden centre as they may contain pesticide residue. I think it’s best to grow them from seed – it’s cheaper and safer. Sow late summer to early autumn in pots or trays of moist seed compost in a cold frame. Do not exclude light, as it helps germination, and keep the seeds moist.
My personal rules
• Ask permission. If you can’t ask an authority, then get permission from the earth, and be thankful. What comes around goes around and if you don’t respect the plants your pickings might be slim the next time round.
• Be clever. Eat only what you know.
• Don’t be greedy. Think of the wildlife that need this food and do not take more than your fair share.
• Be respectful. If you can harvest from the plant and keep it growing, then do so. Make sure you leave plenty of seed behind to self-sow.
• Teach others. Don’t be secretive – if people ask what you are doing, explain. Knowledge is only useful if it’s shared. Stewardship will only work if everyone is on board.
• Go forth and propagate. Do something useful with your pips and seeds by sowing them.
There are many community groups in New Zealand devoted to mapping publicly available fruit trees, herbs and other spots for foraging. Go here to learn more.
Extracted with permission from The Thrifty Forager by Alys Fowler. Published by Kyle Books, distributed by New Holland, 2011, $50.
Alys Fowler had a rural, outdoor childhood in Hampshire, England. Her father was a doctor and her mother ran various cottage industries – including keeping 200 chickens, training gun dogs and dogsitting for wealthy Londoners.
Growing up in a country house filled with old furniture Alys says she always had a sense that handed-down stuff was more interesting than buying new. Alys started gardening in her early teens and trained at the Royal Horticultural Society, the New York Botanical Gardens and Kew’s Royal Botanical Gardens.
Now a regular BBC presenter, Alys fronts the TV series The Edible Garden. Her first book, The Thrifty Gardener, sold over 70,000 copies and has been translated into five languages. The Thrifty Forager encourages us to look again at the weeds in our gardens and the trees in our street. It’s packed with plant descriptions, photographic identification, recipies and tips on how to grow, preserve and eat all manner of fruit and plants.