Foraging: tantalising ingredients from Mother Nature’s larder

March 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last Sunday I woke early to a beautiful day. The skies over Greenwich were blue, my head was clear and I was feeling more energetic than I had done for quite some weeks. The previous day Mr M and I had rushed around cooking and tidying the house as we were due to have friends to dinner. With chores done and left-overs in the fridge, the day was a blank canvas.

As it is the season for sowing and Greenwich unfortunately does not count an independent garden store amongst its many treasures, we decided to stroll up to Blackheath. We would blow the cobwebs away on the heath and stock up on packets of seeds after a cup of tea (and possibly a slice of cake) at Montpelier’s –  a shabby chic independent teashop.

A forager’s tool kit

I had read that Greenwich and Blackheath offer some of the best foraging territory in south London so knowing that early spring is the best time for young nettles, I packed my  dainty gardening gloves, an Onya bag and a pair of scissors – wrapped in a home-made kitchen holster of kitchen to avoid it being construed as a weapon of offence. I also forewarned Mr M that I was in the mood for foraging so would probably be darting off to the wilder overgrown spots en route to SE3 instead of our regular route.

To get the heart pumping we wandered towards Royal Hill and turned up Point Hill for the climb towards Blackheath. If you turn back on a bright day you get a superb hazy view of Canary Wharf – looking dwarf-like and stubby due to the sudden height gain. Before hitting the A2 we turned left into a private road with a mix of Victorian, 1920s and modern houses, mostly overgrown with ivy or creeping virginia and all of which look like they are home to recluse writers, temperamental musicians or eccentric philanthropists.

This unadopted road has overgrown curbs and so is a natural starting point for some foraging. It is also a discrete place where hidden from gazing stares you can bend down and cut a few leaves. As the nettle patches were bursting with young green tips, the gloves, scissors and bag came out. Over the next 15 minutes my quads and abdominal muscles got a good work out as I snipped the top two or three leaves off of the greenest nettles. Sticking to the ten percent rule, i.e. leave 90 percent of the patch untouched so it thrives rather than gorge on nature’s free offerings, I worked my way along the road till my bag was full.

Initially Mr M looked on with mirth. He observed my mix of personae with amusement, chuckling about his wife: an international lawyer and a food forager. Before long though he was drawn into the fun and hunted out particularly abundant and fresh looking patches for me.

Whilst I was kneeling by a particularly luscious section of undergrowth in front of a walled house, an upstairs window of the one opposite opened and the torso of an elderly gentlemen leant out to ask what I was picking. I was expecting a temperamental musician or irate hermit to berate me for picking the produce on this private road but when he heard I was looking for nettles to make a soup he wanted to know the recipe!

Before long Mr M and I were up on the heath investigating likely spots for wild garlic and elderflowers in the coming months and brambles in late summer before heading for a well-deserved cup of coffee and cake. Fortified by half a slice of Victoria sponge we finished the business of the day, seed buying, and even managed to purchase a garden table and chair set before heading home for a late lunch. It was the first al fresco one of the year: left-over panzanella. After an afternoon of weeding and sowing vegetables I returned to the kitchen and my rinsed nettles. With an onion, some garlic, a few sticks of celery and a potato I whizzed up a pan of nettle soup that tasted as fresh as the smell of an early spring morning.

If you do not mind being considered slightly batty by passersby, I thoroughly recommend responsible foraging. The rewards are fresh air, seeing nature up close, a sense of connection with our ancestors, a free muscle toning session, conversation with strangers and of course, the flavours of fresh seasonal free range produce!

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