How to be an urban forager in your local green space

Lockdown has really had an impact on how some of us eat.

Where once we’d swan around at organic stores or visit our local Tesco on a daily basis, buying baskets of fresh produce, we’re now getting used to a diet of tinned tomatoes and frozen fodder.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, eating frozen and canned fruit and veg can be every bit as nutritious as the fresh stuff.

But if you do just fancy adding a little crunch, a little earthy goodness to your meals, then what are you supposed to do? After all, no one wants to queue outside a supermarket for hours on end if they can help it – especially not for a little veg that you’ll eat up within a couple of days.

The solution, my friends, is waiting for you in your local green open space.

Since lockdown began, I’ve taken to running in my local woods and recreation grounds in east east London. We’re lucky over here to have quite a lot of greenery but our spaces are no where near as big or wild as say Hampstead Heath or Hackney Marshes. The local rec is the kind of place kids have football practice on Saturday mornings while the woods are usually reserved for early morning dog walkers and evening joggers. Since lockdown, both have been teeming with people desperate for a little fresh air.

A couple of weeks ago, during the golden hour, I noticed that the woods smelt strongly of something familiar. Something kind of tasty. It was garlic. Turns out, the entire wood is covered in wild garlic so I picked a few leaves and home with them.

After a good wash, I stuck them in a salad with some spinach and basil, and a slug of olive oil and lemon juice. Wild garlic is absolutely delicious. It’s strong so if you normally like to cook with a few bulbs, chucking a few leaves into pastas, salads and stews work really well. They’re also quite meaty so great for padding out meals.

I’ve also found huge tufts of fennel growing on the edges of the rec grounds amid the long grass, while nettles and dandelions grow wherever they get the chance – and all are edible.

Fennel is really perfume-y. You can dust salads with small pieces or put a few sprigs in your mug for a refreshing cup of fennel tea. Dandelion leaves too are apparently fantastic for salads. Just make sure that anything you pick is thoroughly washed and try to pick from plants that are slightly off the main thoroughfare. Think about where dogs might be most likely to wander and do their business, or where busy feet might have passed – spluttering as they go.

Aside from the taste and texture (and satifaction of having found and picked your own veg), these urban-growing leaves are really good for us.

Fennel is packed with fibre, potassium, folate, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and phytonutrients, while both the flower and leaves of dandelions are nutritious. Dandelion greens can be cooked or eaten raw and are great sources of vitamins A, C and K, as well as E, folate and B vitamins.

Wild garlic is known to be antibacterial, a natural digestion aid and apparently, may be useful for reducing blood pressure.

If you do find swathes of wild garlic, rather than over-picking, you might want to simply uproot a single plant by the bulb and plant it in your own pot or balcony garden. If you’re careful and don’t take too much, you won’t destroy the ecosystem. Be warned though: wild garlic has a tendency to take over plant beds (our local woods is carpetted in the stuff!) so you might be better off simply getting a grow bag or big pot and harvesting leaves from time to time.

So what about nettles? Most of us have grown up thinking of them as nasty, painful weeds that sting and choke flowers. But nettles can make delicious soups.

I asked Twitter exactly how one is supposed to go about collecting nettles and was told that you want to go for the standard ouchy stuff (not the flowering non-stringing variety).

Wear rubber gloves and fold the leaf by only touching the top (it’s the hairs under the leaf that sting). Go for the young tops and ditch the stalks and bigger leaves – a bit like spinach. Wash and blanch your leaves for a couple of minutes in boiling water to remove the sting.

One great suggestion was to make homemade nettle pesto by blending nettles, wild garlic, hard cheese (or nutritious yeast), pine nuts, olive oil and salt. Not only delicous but also packed with iron!

And if pesto doesn’t take your fancy, you can always brew nettles for tea or blend for a warming lunch. Again, they’re absolutely brimming with good stuff including vitamins A, C, K and B, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium, as well as essential amino acides and more.

The best bit is that you don’t have to travel out of your way to find nettles – they’re everywhere you look!

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