Meeting outside Abney Park Cemetery on Stoke Newington High Street we were greeted with flasks of fresh coffee and some delicate mulberry and London honey muffins to start a morning tour of true urban foraging.
Expert wild food forager, Nick Saltmarsh guided us into Abney Park Cemetery opening our city eyes to the edibles below our feet in the cracks of the pavements and next to the rubbish bin – pineapple weeds, nettles, tomatoes and dandelions. Nick reminded us that our urban landscape is fascinating, and a surprisingly richer environment that the countryside, perfect for delicious foraging.
Inside the cemetery were the true delights – juicy sloe berries, tiny raspberries, hogweed, hawthorn berries and leaves, elderberries, elderflowers, rose hips, blackberries, dewberries, mulberries, dock leaves, hedge garlic, pine needles and the ‘juicy ear’ fungi which are usually found on the branches of elder trees, and yes they really do look like tiny ears!
The first essential for any keen forager is a book of poisonous plants and fungi, so you can be one hundred percent sure of what you are eating. In other words, the golden rule is to achieve a positive identity before any picking or eating takes place. And just in case you weren’t sure, under the 1968 theft act, foraging for personal consumption in a public area is not theft.
The location, Abney Park Cemetery, is rich with history, originally a park around a grand house, turned into a non-conformist Victorian cemetery, taken over by a trust that planted an alphabetical arboretum, now managed by Hackney Council. It’s considered the largest woodland ecosystem in London and straddles two distinct types of landscapes, Oak woodland and heathland.
We then wandered along Church Street to Clissold Park taking in the diverse mix of fruit and nut trees – cherry plum, peach, pear, fig, hazelnut almonds and walnut, the most common in urban areas. In Clissold Park we stood in delight under a magnificent fruiting mulberry tree, which had black juicy berries just out of hands reach!
It was nearing lunchtime, so we jumped in a couple of taxis to cookery teacher cum culinary anthropologist Anna Colquhoun’s house in Highbury to find out how we could make the most of our urban edible landscape in the kitchen.
Fortunately, Nick had been foraging earlier in the week and Anna’s kitchen was stuffed with wild fungi, hedgerow berries, mulberries and wild greens. First up were some triangular wild weed filo pies, which had been made earlier in true Blue Peter style. Anna then introduced us to the wild mushroom speltotto with Nasturtium butter, which would be our lunch. We all chopped and stirred as Nick filled us in on more wild fungi facts.
Lunch ended with chestnut flour crepes with wild berries and ricotta cream. We also tried out some of Anna’s homemade liquors (made with bay, sloe berries and walnuts) on our way out which had a real punch!
A large festive dark red pan had been bubbling away with a mix of edible hedgerow berries and some apples – on the way to being a hedgerow jelly. This was to be our take away gift, perfect with hard cheeses and cold meats.
I think we’ll all be looking around London in a more inquisitive way now we’ve had a taste of the abundance under our feet, above our heads and at arm’s length. Together with a good field guide and a book of poisonous plants and fungi, London really is delicious for foraging.
Roger Phillips illustrated guides come highly recommended for all things wild food.
This was originally posted on the Jellied Eel with some edits.