Foraging is no longer the preserve of the barefooted hippy. Chef India Hamilton shows David Clack where to find an edible bounty and how not to kill himself in the process. Photography Rob Greig
In a city where supermarkets are everywhere, the idea of foraging for food may feel faintly, quaintly ridiculous. But picking wild produce is in the midst of a resurgence, and it’s not just lute-strumming loonies venturing out with their secateurs and wicker baskets.
Following a trend set by Copenhagen uber restaurant Noma, foraged ingredients have become the norm among London’s burgeoning clique of modernist restaurants. Southwark’s Michelin-starred Restaurant Story, Clove Club in Shoreditch and Ink in Mile End are among those getting in on the act, and for London’s pop-up restaurants and supper clubs, parks and commons are fast becoming the new farmers’ markets.
The attractions of foraging are obvious: you can get your hands on fresh ingredients for free and it’s environmentally sound, too, without any plastic packaging in sight. Even in a built-up city like London, there are many wild places with the potential to offer up herbs, leaves, berries, nuts, fungi and fruit.
For newbies, the first step is to join a group. Not only do people like Forage London (see below) have good relationships with the people whose land you’ll be plundering, they’ll also make sure you don’t pick the wrong sort of mushroom and end up trying to give your cat a job interview. Or, y’know, dying. ‘Foraging is all about relationships,’ says India Hamilton, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who regularly uses foraged produce in the feasts she presides over with her pop-up kitchen Unyn. As well as keeping the law off your back, having landowners onside can also help you. ‘As long as you’re foraging for personal use, they’re usually fine about it. Plus, there are some great people working in London’s parks, and they know better than anyone where to find the best stuff.’ It’s worth noting that in some parts of London, such as Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest, foraging is flatly forbidden.
When it comes to safety, even seasoned foragers abide by one simple rule. ‘If you’re not sure, don’t pick it,’ says India. ‘Nature has an incredible way of one species mimicking characteristics of another, so learning to identify what’s edible is really important.’ She recommends an app called Project Noah, which allows you to upload pictures of your finds for the scientific scrutiny of experts, who’ll let you know whether or not they’re safe to make into a salad.
Naturally, what you come home with depends on what’s in season, and right now is the perfect time to get started. ‘There’s a lot of windfall fruit around,’ says India. ‘By picking it up you’re actually saving it from being wasted.’ Her timely tip is to head to Hackney Marshes and Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for cobnuts, walnuts and nettles. Knowing how to prepare the stuff is just as important. ‘A lot of nettles and flowers can be a bit irritating to eat,’ she says, ‘but they’re really good blanched. Herbs and salad leaves don’t fare that well once picked, so gathering what you need for an evening meal the same morning is a smart move.’ It may not all add up to a Noma-grade feast, but at least you’ll avoid yet another visit to Tesco Express.
Pick your own with London’s best foraging groups.