Wild foods in Charlotte Square

by Christine Knight

My Wednesday afternoon was truly inspiring, kicking off in style at the Edinburgh International Book Festival listening to Alys Fowler and Steve Benbow talk about urban foraging and beekeeping. Heading to the Signing Tent afterwards to hunt down Fowler’s book The Thrifty Forager, I serendipitously bumped into designer friends Mark and Gieun, who set me up with the foragersfriend app, links to Dunne & Raby’s design project on foraging, and a chocolate and cardamom cupcake from the Book Signing Café Bar.

I feel a bit mean here focussing almost entirely on Alys Fowler’s half of the event, because Steve Benbow’s work is just as inspiring and he’s a similarly engaging speaker. Both authors have so much enthusiasm, energy, and motivation to communicate what they’re doing that it’s difficult to capture it in writing. Nonetheless, if I gave equal space to both writers here this post would expand to morbidly obese proportions, and foraging is more immediately applicable to my life than beekeeping. So, I urge you to check out Benbow’s London Honey Company to find out more about his beehives on London rooftops.

Three years ago, gardener-foodie-journalist Alys Fowler decided to stop buying produce that grows in the UK, and start gathering it herself instead. In practice this has meant only forking out cash for citrus fruit, and foraging a startling array of leafy greens and berries around her local area in Birmingham. She’s especially passionate about city foraging (not just for rural types, in other words), and took Wednesday’s audience through a rapid-fire illustrated menu of plants gathered everywhere from Currys carpark to Regent’s Canal in London. Use lime leaves in your sandwiches in place of lettuce; dry the lime-flowers for a couple of days and you have Proust’s favourite linden tea, guaranteed to send you to sleep. Keep your eyes open for hedge garlic (tastes of mustard, then garlic); thistles (eat raw or cooked); nettles (2 minutes only in soup); clove root (repels moths); chickweed; wild rocket; lemon balm; field poppies; fennel… the list goes on. It was a presentation crammed with kitchen tips, nutritional tidbits, and foraging anecdotes, from how to avoid dog pee, to why wild greens wilt within 2 hours of picking (they’re high in omega 3s and 6s, which have been bred out of commercial salad leaves). The Thrifty Forager (the only book I bought at this year’s festival) is the same: a forager’s manual jam-packed with recipes, pictures, tips, and advice, clearly structured and beautifully presented.

Reassuringly, Fowler isn’t suggesting foraging as an exclusive basis for subsistence – this is wild food to go with your pasta or roast dinner, not replace it. It’s her enthusiasm without evangelism that carried me along with her, even when she alleged that the secret to Mediterranean longevity is wild foods: ‘the fish and the olive oil are good, but it’s the weeds that really matter’. I’m a self-confessed nutritional cynic, including about the Mediterranean diet, but Fowler raced on too quickly to a spinach substitute called ‘fat hen’ to give any impression that she was soap-boxing. Her and Benbow’s talks were similarly inspiring and thought-provoking without being prescriptive, at least in any simple ‘save the world’ kind of way. That’s refreshing in the food world, and it comes, I think, from their years of on-the-ground experience, incredibly detailed knowledge of their subjects, and passion to communicate as much as possible in a very short space of time.

I normally save my pennies rather than buying (new) books, and what sold me on The Thrifty Forager was partly nostalgia – seeing Fowler’s recipe for fruit leather, and remembering my best friend Anne’s mother Colleen making cherry ‘red leather’ on tarpaulins in her backyard every summer, in 40-degree Adelaide heat. What also sold me was the draw of belonging. When I first moved to Scotland from Australia, one of my strongest feelings was of alienation from my environment – plants, animals, birds, even the sky. Every time I saw a squirrel I thought for a moment it was a possum; I didn’t know the names of the trees; the weather didn’t follow any logic that I knew; even the stars were alien. I bought myself a children’s book of trees and learned to recognise sycamores, rowans, horse chestnuts, limes. But ultimately, developing a sense of place has simply taken time, and even more so, deliberate immersion in my natural surroundings – far more than I ever bothered with at home. I can now name the peaks of the Pentlands from having climbed them; I know the lime trees in Inverleith Park from running past them in all seasons. I doubt I will ever become a subsistence forager, but I hope that making linden tea and hedge garlic sauce will bring even more of that sense of place that I craved only after being uprooted.

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