November 15, 2008
Late Summer Foraging in and around Gunpowder Park: 27th August
I have always questioned what makes a weed a weed? Why some plants are desired over others when so many of these ‘weeds’ are beautiful, edible and medicinal. Wild food is the first place to start when searching for food within a 6 mile radius. Its interesting too, in terms of using the land around us as a source of edible energy…when you have the feeling that you have as much right as the birds and the squirrels to help yourself to all these plants and rich pickings…they are free and all you need is the physical energy to go out and get them.
Although wild food has in recent years become a bit of a feature on the menus of the gourmet, many of us have forgotten which plants are edible, how to prepare them or use them medicinally. A herbalist that we happened to meet at Gunpowder Park, mentioned that horsemen in the past, would have known the healing properties of hedgerow plants, so they could use them if injured on route. What fantastic knowledge. Today, other cultures seem very in tune with urban foraging, particularly Turkish people, who I have spotted collecting various wild fruits hanging over into the streets of Dalston.
What seems so great about wild food, is the satisfaction that what you eat is growing in total symbiosis with what else is around it. Obviously, all plant-based food was wild at some point, but cultivated fruits and vegetables have been cross-bred, modified, manipulated by man for ease of mass-production making them heavily reliant on fertilisers and other very artificial techniques. Because of this, the diversity of varieties is just not seen in the supermarket… (although some ‘new’ ones may be creeping in wearing a weird ‘Taste the Difference’ label and a high price tag). If you really want to taste the difference, perhaps it can be done for free by rediscovering some instinctive knowledge about the plants that still find places to grow all around us. Many of them, now classed as ‘weeds’, plucked, mowed and discarded with no regard for their nutritional, medicinal values whatsoever.
We armed ourselves with 2 classic books:
Food for Free by Richard Maybe, Collins 1972
The English Physician, Culpeper’s British Herbal 1814
It was harvest time and we went for a walk in the park hoping to find some wild edible plants – blackberries at least! We found something before we even got there. Bees buzzed on top of a huge lavender crop on the side of the road…maybe not edible, but lavender laden bees would make some very tasty honey… Next to it we spotted a large rosemary bush…could go very well with some roasted allotment potatoes…
“…is of a special good use for all the griefs and pains of the head and brain that proceed a cold cause, as the apoplexy, falling sickness, the dropsy, or sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies and often faintings … Two spoonfuls of the distilled water of the flowers taken, helpeth them that have lost their voice, as also the tremblings and passions of the heart, and faintings and swoonings, not only to be drank, but applied to the temples, or nostrils to be smelt unto…”
“It helpeth a weak memory and quickeneth the senses…. The flowers and conserve made of them, are good to comfort the heart… to burn the herb in houses and chambers correcteth the air in them…. The dried leaves shred small, and taken in a pipe, as tobacco is taken, helpeth those that have any cough, phthisick, or consumption, by warming and drying the thin distillations which cause those diseases…”
At the side of the road here, we got chatting to Fabio, a local photographer and keen jam-maker, who sent us in the right direction to find blackberry brambles, on the fringe of Gunpowder Park
According to Richard Maybe, the seeds of this very common fruit were found “in the stomach of a Neolithic man dug up from the Essex clay…” So this is a truly local species! We all know that blackberries are great for jams, crumbles, pies, puddings and juice, their taste mingles well with apples and elderberries and they are delicious eaten fresh from the brambles. Apparently there are over 400 microspecies of Blackberry in Britain all with slightly different tastes and ready to be gathered from August – October.
The tub now full of blackberries, we crossed the river, further into the park. Its a fantastic way to go for a walk…trying to identify plants and see if they are edible. And so many of them are…
The furry leaves are used. Don’t worry about the fur, Richard Maybe reassures that it will disappear during cooking. Prepare as well-seasoned spinach or make a special fritter: “Leave the stalks on the comfrey leaves, wash well, and dip into a thin batter made from egg, flour and water. Then fry the battered leaf for not more than two minutes…” It has an abundance of medicinal qualities too, including miracle bone-setting.
Gunpowder Park is speckled with these bright orange berries between late August and November. We chose to leave them to ripen for another month. Rosehips contain more vitamin C than oranges which led to 344 tons being collected and produced as a syrup during the war when citrus fruits were scarce. In the Middle Ages the berries were used as a filling for sweet tarts.
Prickly pink thistles grow all over the park. This one looks like a marsh thistle. “…the young shoots have been used like Burdock in some European countries.” Richard Maybe. The prickles and the tough outer peel are removed, and the stalks then used in salads or boiled. Perhaps it can be used to make a type of Dandelion and Burdock cordial…
Here is the companion for the Burdock drink. A plant everyone recognises… its flyaway seeds ensure that the yellow flowers appear in abundance almost all year round. It is incredibly versatile: the roots can be dried, roasted and ground into ‘coffee’, cooked as a vegetable ( Japanese style) and the leaves and heads used in salads, sandwiches or boiled like spinach. Culpeper confirms the plant’s virtues as a cleanser of the liver and diuretic:
“You can see here what virtues this common herb hath, and that is the reason the French and Dutch so often eat them in the spring: and now, if you look a little further, you may see plainly, without a pair of spectacles, that foreign physicians are not so selfish as ours are, but more communicative of the virtues of plants to people.” (In French the plant is called: pissenlit).
A couple of summers ago we made Elderflower cordial and champagne, but we’ve never gathered and made anything with the berries which are in season now. They can be fermented into wine, added to apple crumbles and blackberry jelly… Richard Maybe gives a recipe for a kind of spicy ‘Daddy’s Sauce’ called Pontack Sauce: “a relic from those days when every retired military gentleman carried his patent sauce as an indispensable part of his luggage.”
Further into the park we recognise many Hawthorn bushes, but had no idea that they were edible: “The young April leaves – called bread and cheese by children – have a pleasantly nutty taste”. Richard Maybe recommends them as a useful addition to spring salads, sandwiches, pies, potatoes and nuts. The little red berries, which are out now, look like they might give you a tummy ache, but can actually be made into a jelly with crab apples and taste great with cream cheese.
“If cloths and sponges be wet in the distilled water (of the hawthorn flowers), and applied to any place wherein thorns and splinters, or the like, do abide in the flesh, it will notably draw them forth; and thus you see the thorn gives a medicine for his own picking, and so doth almost everything else.” Culpeper
We spot loads of tumbling little apples near the meridian line monument…They are crab apples, but not featured in either of our books.
Jelly or wine seem to be the most common way of using them.
Finally we found this golden flower shining out of the long grass and teasels. It used to be a popular kitchen garden herb: “the juice was used to flavour omlettes…and there was a delightful medieval bubble and squeak. made from a fry-up of tansy leaves, green corn and violets and served with orange and sugar.” We took some home but were a bit scared to try it.
“Let those women that desire children love this herb, it is their best companion, (their husbands excepted). Culpeper
Although feeling very satisfied and much more learned after a day of foraging, I realised it was a very time-consuming way of getting a decent meal or store cupboard together: it could almost become a full time job – as it was for primitive man. But it does give a real hands-on sense of how food and medicine fits into the whole ecological system and how our bodies are neatly designed for this extremely therapeutic activity which gave me an acute sense of general elatedness.
Then again, a tiny punnett of blackberries will cost you £1.49 at the local shop.
It would take less than 5 minutes to pick these from a good bramble bush round the corner.