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Wild about foraging in east London

Paul Clements finds an edible treasure trove on his doorstep in the unlikely urban locale of east London .


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.

My kitchen overlooks a 90-acre nature reserve. With the window ajar, I can just make out the rattle of overland trains and, this being Hackney, the squeal of police 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 more interesting produce on Walthamstow Marshes than in my local shop, so I’ve invited him to show me how to find it.

He stops in his tracks and emits a satisfied squeal as he examines a patch of weeds growing by the marshes entrance. “You’ve got a wild herb garden on your doorstep.”

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 flower head, scrunches it, and takes a deep sniff. “Mugwort,” he says. “Crush it and you’ll get citrus first.” The heady lemony aroma is, 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) often translated from the Japanese 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 perennial herb, and mostly overlooked in the kitchen,” he says. “You can use the flower head and leaves to enrich stocks and chutneys. It’ll add 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 Simon Rogan has used mugwort to prepare duck and suckling pig. You can’t buy it fresh in supermarkets – but it’s growing for free and 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.” A mallow’s leaves are full of mucilage, he tells me “a gummy substance that’s great for thickening soups”.

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. “Toss this into stir-fries.”

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.

“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.”

Fittingly for this urban area of London, he pulls out his iPhone and shows me a free downloadable app that has descriptions 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 glance. “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. “They’re 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].”

Chris is even more taken with his latest discovery: a cobnut tree. “Eat them green, before they’re hard and need cracking,” he says. “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. “They’re too good to just feed to pigs. You can make them 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 chickpeas in tins because life’s too short to soak things overnight, is ever going to do that. But he keeps trying to convince.

“They’re great!” he says. “You can bake them like chestnuts and put them 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 window sills, 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 (see recipe).

At this rate, I’m just a wheat shortage away from milling my own acorns into flour.

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