Tuesday, 6 September 2011
Taste the wild on Walthamstow Marshes
Here's a piece of mine about foraging for food in Hackney, which appeared last weekend in The Sunday Telegraph.
Where I live in London’s east end, it’s a rare urban idyll. A minute from my door, there’s a convenience store; a minute in the opposite direction and you’re on one of the last remaining wetlands in the capital.
The view from my kitchen is truly bucolic, overlooking the 90-acre nature reserve. With the window ajar, I can just make out the distant rattle of overland trains and, this being Hackney, the squeal of police car sirens.
Chris Bax, Countryfile’s intrepid forager who teaches at Taste The Wild, the woodland skills school in North Yorkshire, thinks I can find fresher and certainly more interesting produce on Walthamstow Marshes than in my local shop. So I’ve invited him to show me how to find it.
Chris, who’s quietly passionate about all things picked and plucked, stops in his tracks and emits a satisfied squeal as he examines a patch of weeds growing my the marshes entrance. “You’ve got an entire wild herb garden on your doorstep,” he enthuses, getting breathless with excitement. “I thought we might find a few things, but the range of stuff growing here is just… bonkers!”
We could do with a supermarket basket for all the goodies he’s about to find on the verges, in the hedgerows, hanging from trees. By the marshland footpath, he spots a tall, silvery plant. He rips off a flowerhead, scrunches it up in his fist, and takes a deep sniff. “Mugwort,” he says, aaah-ing as he exhales. “Crush it and you’ll get citrus first.” The lemony aroma is heady and, to me, not unlike Fairy liquid.
“But it’s also full of umami,” he says – the hallowed “fifth taste” (after salty, sour, sweet and bitter) that is often translated from the Japanase as ‘savouriness’.
As mugwort sounds like something out of Harry Potter, I want to be sure it’s safe to eat – and what to do with it. “It’s an aromatic perrenial herb, and mostly overlooked in the kitchen,” he says. “You can use the flowerhead and leaves to enrich stocks and chutneys. It’ll adds meatiness to gravy and Sunday roasts.”
Some of the country’s more adventurous Michelin-starred restaurants, such as L’Enclume, on the edge of the Lake District, are doing their bit to bring it back into culinary circulation; chef and patron Simon Rogan has used mugwort to prepare duck and suckling pig. You can’t buy it in fresh in supermarkets – but it’s happily growing for free and mostly unnoticed by the River Lea.
Moving on, Chris finds a patch of yarrow, a “bitter but pretty” culinary herb with fronds shaped like a feather. “It’s amazing just how many urban weeds are edible,” he says. “This, you can just chuck into salads.”
Next, he spots a spear thistle, with its purple plume and spiny stem. But peel that away, and inside there’s a succulent green thread that’s mild and crunchy – “just like celery,” marvels Chris, nibbling away. “You can toss this like noodles into stir-fries.”
As we walk on, we alight upon a batch of comfrey, a pretty, purple flowering plant with furry, cucumber-scented leaves – but with potentially carbolic properties if digested in great quantity. Chris decides it’s a suitable point for a few do’s and don’ts when picking and preparing wild food.
“Take what you’ve foraged in moderation to begin with,” he advises. “Don’t, for instance, make a whole stew from mugwort alone. Try adding a little bit to dishes. Take it slowly. And if in any doubt, don’t eat it.”
[subs, don’t delete this par] Fittingly for this urban area of London popular with media trendies, he pulls out his iPhone and shows me a free downloadable app that has descriptinos and full-screen pictures to help autumn foragers identify plants. The Wild Jam Maker app by Stoves lists edible fruits and berries that can be found in the wild – making plants such as rowan, medlar and blackthorn easily recognisable at a glace. “It’s the ideal reference tool for amateur foragers,” says Chris.
Having scouted the marshland verges, it’s time for a few trees and shrubs to give up their goodies. Though most of the blackberries have already been scrumped, there’s still a bounty of elderberries. “There a bit boring on their own,” Chris admits, “but they’re a versatile berry, full of vitamin C, and will bulk up a hedge jelly, or make a Pontac sauce”, a traditional English spicy ketchup with the consistency of Worcestershire sauce.
As I collect bunches of luscious elderberries, Chris is more taken with his latest discovery: a cobnut tree. “Eat them green, before they’re hard and need cracking” he says, gnawing at a freshly plucked specimen. “When they’re sweet and young, scrape out the flesh and make it into a pesto with some Wensleydale, wild garlic, nettle, hazelnuts and rapeseed oil.” He makes it sound so easy - and delicious.
There’s another muffled squeal when he spots an oak heavy with acorns. “A classic nut,” he says, with the passion of a man reminiscing about a favourite prog rock band. “They’re too good to just feed to pigs. You can make into a flour, if you bleach out the tannins first by boiling them in two changes of water, then bake them before grinding…” As if someone like me, who buys chick peas in tins because life’s too short to even soak things overnight, is going ever going to do that. But he keeps trying to convince.
“They’re great!” he says, like the Frosties tiger. “You can bake them like chestnuts and put in stews and stuffing, or make them into patties. They make great biscuits... and ice-cream! Not whole acorns, obviously – you leave them to infuse in the milk. They give off a caramelly warmth. In the Second World War, they even made them into an ersatz coffee…”
During our hour of intense foraging yards from my door, Chris singles out almost two dozen different herbs, fruits and nuts that I’d never noticed before. I now have cobnuts drying in bowls on windowsills, grated horseradish root infusing in oil (“it’s knockout on Asian dishes, and you’ll only need a few drops to get that wasabi kick”), and bottles of elderberry cordial in the fridge for winter. I’ve added wild pea shoots to salads, brewed minty flavoured tea from white dead nettle, and cooked up vatfuls of hedge jelly from all those seemingly wasted rosehips, sloes and hawthorn haws, made to Chris’s recipe (see below).
At this rate, I’m just a global wheat shortage away from milling my own acorns into flour. Bring. It. On.
* The Wild Jam Maker app by Stoves is available to download free at bit.ly/wildjammaker
Chris Bax's Hedge Jelly
The beauty of this recipe is that you can use whichever edible hedgerow fruit you can find. Just throw in some crab apples (halved) to add pectin to the mix and help it set.
1 x basket of mixed berries e.g. elderberries, blackberries, rosehips, hawthorn haws, sloes
The exact amounts depends on how much fruit you have gathered. I recommend about half a basket of hawthorn haws and then a mixture of the other fruits, but the beauty is that the jelly is slightly different every time.
Clean the fruit of any large stalks and leaves, put them into a large pan, cover with water and simmer for an hour until the fruit loses its colour and is very soft. (You might need to top up the water.) Strain through muslin and save the liquid.
Measure your liquid: for every pint, add one pound of sugar and the strained juice of a lemon. Boil fast until the jelly reaches the setting point, skimming the scum off regularly. Pour into sterile jars and cover when cool enough.
* For more Chris Bax recipes, visit www.tastethewild.co.uk
The edited version appears on the Telegraph website