Forage for borage: how to find your own food in the city
- Credit: shanes
Panicking that she might have to start rationing vegetables, Zoe Paskett meets Shane Harrison, a New Zealand born restaurateur and expert in foraging for food
There’s a lot of hype these days around going back to basics. As it becomes less and less affordable to exist in London, it’s no surprise that we’re returning to the simple pleasures.
Considering the fact that we have spent more of our evolutionary lives foraging than not foraging, it’s interesting how few people now do it. Living in a city with a Tesco around the corner, it’s unlikely to be your first port of call. But now that we’re at risk of having to ration our vegetable intake, it might not be the worst thing to know a bit more about.
If you’re as much of a fan of free food as I am, you’ll probably be just as amazed at the variety you can find close to where you live. We have the luxury in this part of London of some of the best parks and public green spaces to work with, so I decided now should be the time to start making the most of them.
I have made my way down to Shane’s on Canalside to meet a restaurateur who has embraced foraging as a staple in his cooking. Shane Harrison, a New Zealander who came to London in 2002 via Ireland, has opened two restaurants, one in Here East in Hackney Wick and the other on Chatsworth Road.
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Accompanied by his faithful rescue bulldog, Edna, we set off from the restaurant up the canal in search of lunch. Within 5 metres, we’ve stopped and he’s already picking leaves from the greenery between the river and the pavement.
“There’s stuff everywhere that you can use,” he says. “These leaves here, it’s sorrel. You’ll find these all through summer. I’ve got a few patches; I’ll take a bit here and then go somewhere else.”
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Shane is very careful about only taking a small amount from each place, telling us of how he’s witnessed white vans coming by, sweeping all of the blackberries from the bushes and driving off to sell them – this also happens to be illegal, but more on that later.
“I take four or five leaves off each one, leave it growing and don’t rip everything out,” he says. “You know that there’s going to be a patch there for most of spring and summer.”
The sorrel safely in the bag, the next plant on the menu is the leaf of the oxeye daisy – both of these are plants that crop up in almost any patch of grass you come by and are pretty easy to identify.
For a beginner level forager, identifying plants can seem like a daunting task, especially if you’re nervous about poisoning yourself, as any sane person would be. Shane is a great advocate of Googling plants to make sure you’re picking what you think you’re picking.
“But when you’re foraging, the rule of thumb is rub it on your lip and wait 15 minutes to see if you’re reacting to it. If there’s nothing, you can try a tiny wee bit. The lip is a good reader.”
At this point, an alarm might be going off in your head that sounds something a bit like “dog piss”. I know it is for me, but Shane is just as relaxed about this as everything else.
“I wash everything. I’ve had people say ‘eurgh, yuck, you’re eating things out of the marshes; dogs, animals, everything’s been all over them’. If you think about what you eat, every vegetable has had loads of chemicals on them, which is worse!”
We add to our bag borage, which is a little furry, cooks “exactly the same as spinach” and has a cucumber-y taste. Its purple flower is edible as well and Shane recommends using it fresh in salads. Next up is nettle, which he plunges his bare hand into saying he’s got “hardy” fingers, but recommends using a bag on the hand to avoid being stung. These are particularly young plants, which he will use as tea, cooked with a bit of butter or blanched and used to wrap cheese in to dry it off.
“It’s a fantastic preservative for cheese and it’s got a lovely taste as well. Great for calcium and iron. These are really soft, because they’re very fresh, so they’re not stinging at the moment.”
We walk down the canal, through the Wick Woodland, Hackney Marshes and through the filter beds reserve. Spring hasn’t officially sprung just yet and within weeks there will be an abundance of shoots, but right now it isn’t rife, so Shane talks about his history of foraging in New Zealand.
“I’ve had to learn a lot about the English plants. They’re totally different to New Zealand. You can eat what the birds eat. Here you can’t because they eat a lot of poisonous berries. If you’re stuck in the bush, watch the birds.”
Two of the worries that many people harbour around foraging are being poisoned and breaking the law, and with both of these things you would tend to think of mushrooms. One of his favourites is chicken of the woods, a big yellow plate of fungus that grows from the side of a tree. Slice it and fry it: “Vegan chicken!”
With so many varieties of fungus out there, this is definitely something you want to Google before you eat. Some places – such as Epping Forest – have outlawed the picking of mushrooms, which Shane is unhappy about. Picking mushrooms is itself a great way to guarantee they continue to grow and you should use an open container to make sure the spores spread.
“The trouble they’ve had is people picking mushrooms in plastic bags and walking off and they’re taking all of next year’s mushrooms with them. They’ve gone ‘do not collect mushrooms’ rather than ‘let’s educate people on how to pick mushrooms’.”
Unsurprisingly, many people are confused about the laws surrounding foraging. It is illegal on private or protected land without permission and different councils have different regulations, but there should be signs telling you, you can’t pick here. As long as you are taking small amounts to use yourself and not uprooting entire plants to sell in bulk, you’re alright.
“Hackney has been fantastic in their parks,” says Shane. “They’ve planted a lot of the fruit trees. That was a program about three years ago and now they’re coming into fruition where you can actually take the fruit. What’s lovely is they’re planted a load of raspberries along here, and loganberries.
“I think that’s what’s lovely about London; they’ve allowed this to happen.”
After an hour and a half of leaf picking, we take our haul back to his Canalside restaurant, where he uses them to cook up a couple of truly delicious dishes. If I hadn’t just picked it myself, I’d think I was eating spinach. I wolf down an ethically sourced Kentucky fried rabbit wondering just how long I’d last if I foraged for all of my food. Probably not very long, so maybe I’ll start with a salad or cup of nettle tea.
Shane leads foraging trips like this one and wild butchery classes to teach you about preparing pheasant, deer, pigeon and rabbit.