Rosie spoke to John Rensten - founder of Forage London, author of The Edible City: A Year of Wild Food and co-founder of The Association of Foragers - about the possibilities of local foraging (whilst he was foraging for seaweed on a beach in Dorset).
Rosie: John, is foraging adventure?
John: Oh that’s interesting! It’s a sort of micro-adventure, isn’t it? Not all adventures have to be enormous.
The adventure comes from reframing somewhere you're very familiar with. I like to use the term ‘green vision’, which means going into an urban environment or your back garden and just looking at it in a way you’ve never looked at it before.
Foraging is about looking at things in new ways. It's an adventure but it doesn’t have to be adventurous.
Rosie: What do you love most about foraging?
John: It's the diversity that I love. Foraging isn't one thing. The act of foraging is the act of hunting for food or provisions, it’s just an umbrella term really. Foraging links to self-sufficiency, cookery, herbal medicine, nutrition, wellbeing, mindfulness ... there are so many aspects to it. So whoever you are you can benefit from foraging. That diversity is what I love.
Rosie: What can we look for right now?
John: Well, it depends where you are. Generally speaking there are a few plants that have a north/south divide. But you can look for a variety of spring plants all over the country. The poster boy of the foraging world - wild garlic - is wonderful and plentiful and tasty. You could look for St George’s mushrooms, which are due to be coming out soon. I'd then be looking for spring salad plants which are still good now, like cow parsley and curled dock. There are also great blossoms, like magnolia, which is delicious and tastes like ginger and chicory. Lots of the cherry, plum and pear blossoms are also springing up, and are great for making syrups.
Rosie: What about on the coast?
John: The UK has 19,000 miles of coastline and 700 - 800 species of seaweed, and an awful lot of them are edible. These include kelp, dulse, sea lettuce, carragheen and pepper dulse, which tastes spicy and a bit like truffle.
I bring them home and dry them out, rehydrate them and serve them in a salad with cucumber, sesame seeds and brown rice vinegar. Check this recent recipe using foraged sea spaghetti. If you're foraging for seaweed, you really need to look at water quality. Avoid runoff areas and check on websites Safer Seas and the Environment Agency.
Rosie: Where is your favourite place to forage? Where would you recommend?
John: Your most local green space is best, it really is. If I tell you there is a tree with amazing tasty fruit one hour drive away, you're unlikely to go. If I tell you there is the same tree 200m from your house, you'll go.
And the thing is, you then become involved with it [the tree or the green space] emotionally, which makes you care about it. You’re much more likely to become invested in protecting green spaces and becoming an environmental steward if you start locally. This applies to a whole park, a single tree or even a really small triangle by your bus stop. The knock-on effect is brilliant in terms of guarding our natural spaces. So your most local spot will teach you the most.
With foraging, you learn gradually. You learn by watching things change. And that's really best done by watching and experiencing the change in your local space and proximity. Watching this change is such a nice process.
I get these emails asking me: “Where can I find wild garlic?” or “Where can I find x?” You know, nature is not a supermarket. Things often aren't ready when we want them to be or expect them to be. My local park in London was Clissold Park. I made a list of all the plants I foraged there. By the end, there were over 200 plants on that list in just a year or two. So that's my answer. Stay local. Go local.
'My local park in London was Clissold Park. I made a list of all the plants I foraged there. By the end, there were over 200 plants on that list in just a year or two.'
Rosie: How does foraging change between seasons?
John: You need to forget about seasons. It’s all cyclical. Everything overlaps and one thing merges into another. So, one year the elderflower will come out and then after it finishes the lime blossom will come out. But another year the two will overlap.
If you had to bash it into seasons, then at the end of the autumn, when the mushroom season is coming to a close, there is a lovely season when a lot of the green herbaceous plants start to flourish and you get lots of amazing winter salads. You get an awful lot of Time of Plenty through the spring. Then in summer I head to the coast for seaweed.
I tend to think of micro seasons instead of seasons. Some things have a window of opportunity where they are perfect for perhaps a week, but either side of that they taste like shit.
And the point is, if you went to your supermarket and took some biscuits off the shelf and 50 weeks out of 52 they tasted like shit, you’re going to stop buying them. But, when you time things right in nature, suddenly you're like “Oh my god, I get it!” It's so rewarding.
Start with what you know, like stinging nettles. Dandelions have edible roots, leaves and flowers. Wild garlic has five different edible parts. Or even something like Sticky Weed.
Rosie: Have you ever had a bad experience or foraged something you shouldn't?
John: I have been foraging for two decades and I have never poisoned myself or anyone.
I always used to go foraging on the outskirts of London, and I was convinced I was going to find a body. And then one day I was in the woods in Dorset and I found the strangest thing. Basically it looked like an open grave, but lying in it was a life-size plastic skeleton. That freaked me out.
I know people who have found unexploded hand grenades. Myself, I found an absolutely blinding pair of Ray Bans in some woods in London and then two weeks later dropped them in a woods in Wales, so there you go.
'You need to forget about seasons. It’s all cyclical. Everything overlaps and one thing merges into another.'
Rosie: Is there any particular etiquette or code of practice we should be aware of?
John: Yeah lots and lots. Take a look on the safety section of Forage London. But in a nutshell:
- Don't be greedy. There are loads of reasons why; health, sustainability, morality... main thing, don't be greedy.
- No nibbling. If you don’t know what something is, don’t just put it in your mouth. Only nibble stuff that you know is 100% safe. You don't put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger to see if it's loaded or not.
- All things in moderation. When trying something new for the first time, only eat a very small amount to make sure there are no adverse effects.
- Don’t try anything new if you’re pregnant. This applies even more so to wild food, some of which may contain chemical compounds that are fine usually but harmful if you’re pregnant.
- Avoid dog poo and wee. Whether urban foraging or in the countryside, wash anything you find at ground level.
- Avoid pollution and heavy metals. If foraging in built up areas, consider whether the plants may have absorbed pollution from close proximity to busy roads or heavy metals from poor, more industrialised areas. Mushrooms are excellent at absorbing pollutants, so it is generally accepted that picking them close to busy roads is a bad idea (plus no one wants to get run over for a handful of fungi).
- Follow common sense and the law. You are legally allowed to collect fruit flowers, foliage and fungi for personal consumption, although obviously not from someone else’s garden. It is illegal to uproot any plant without permission of the landowner and a civil offence to go onto land you don’t own unless it’s a public place. Lastly, some plants are very rare and protected, so it’s illegal to pick them.
John’s courses run in London, New Forest and Dorset. He also runs great events. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook or sign up to Forage London’s newsletter.