Urban foraging: If Brexit bites, dig for victory

Fearing sad-looking supermarket shelves? Foraging could be the answer. Hannah Westwater grasps the nettle

Potential food shortages have been hanging ominously over Brexit for months. Earlier this year, a group of well-known British food chains – Pret A Manger, McDonald’s plus a number of supermarkets – warned politicians about what could happen to food supplies if the country were to plunge out of the EU without a deal.

Foraging, once essential for survival and now often portrayed as a middle-class luxury, is making a comeback. Even if Brexit leaves the UK a dystopian, looted wasteland, there will be options – especially for people in towns and cities. You need only glance down to the chickweed growing from broken pavements under your feet.

Urban foragers like John Rensten will save your salads. Rensten runs Forage London, leading wild food walks through the capital, and teaches others how to live off the land. It’s “ridiculously easily and totally plentiful,” he says, “with more species diversity in a square mile of London than in any rural area”.

The crop diversity is largely down to the way microclimates develop within cities, extending growing and flowering seasons for most wild crops. But it’s also because of what Rensten calls linear landscapes, like the sides of railway tracks, which become “wonderful conduits for pollination”. He recommends picking cherry blossom, which makes a “delicious” syrup.

Wild food is disproportionately high in nutrients, vitamins and minerals, he says, plus it’s free and sustainable. But he knows foraging is considered by some to be the preserve of the wealthy. He even took steps to change that, offering guided wild food walks for £5, rather than £40, for those on low incomes. But he struggles to fill the spaces, even when the more expensive tours are selling out weeks in advance.

Kids love it. It’s like a multi-sensory treasure hunt.

“Foraging won’t be the priority of a single mum living in a flat with two kids to look after and two jobs. Obviously, she has not got a lot of time to go flouncing about with a basket picking wild greens,” he explains. “And an hour’s foraging usually equates to about four hours in the kitchen.

“However that doesn’t mean that when she takes her kids to the park that couldn’t be punctuated with a little bit of picking something that’s completely free and healthy. Plus, kids love it. It’s like a multi-sensory treasure hunt.”

The guide has two main rules that he passes on to foraging newcomers, though: “don’t nibble” and research the area. Rensten happily reports that he has never accidentally poisoned himself thanks to the former, emphasising that eating is not part of the crop identification process.

The latter is especially important in urban settings, he explains. Derelict areas overrun by valuable weeds can prove some of the best places for foraging, but they are also more likely to have toxic chemicals in the ground as a result of industry having once operated on the same site.

DID YOU KNOW…

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For this, budding urban foragers should take a look at their city’s records. There are many parks which are historically documented green spaces, predating the industrial revolution, meaning the soil will be great quality and its food safe to eat. The downside to this is that the plants there could be ornamental, rather than edible, in which case a weed-ridden supermarket car park would have more to offer.

James Wood, founder of foraging company Totally Wild, says people must take a moment to go over the ethical and legal considerations involved with urban foraging.

“If you’re picking it for yourself, you can pick from private or public land,” he says. “There are some queries around what weight counts as too much for one person, but that grey area hasn’t been solved.

“You can harvest on private land but if the owner asks you to leave, you must. You can take what you already picked, though.”

Wood also points out a peculiar law that says when uprooting a plant – which can only be done with landowner permission – you have to leave the flowers or leaves to prove you are not trying to remove the whole crop.

Some of the most bountiful spots in a town or city are surprising. Both experts cite cemeteries more than once; often sheltered, reasonably undisturbed soil allows a wide range of crops to grow. But poisonous chemicals like arsenic can be found in cemeteries dating back to the Victorian era, and are best avoided – mushrooms in particular can be dangerous because of how they absorb toxins from the ground.

It is not just leafy green salad fodder ready to be foraged from urban cityscapes. Sweet violets, a near-ubiquitous plant which blossoms into flowers that taste like violet sweets, are found everywhere from the middles of roundabouts to motorway verges.

Assuming Britain is protected from food shortages, it might still be worth shifting diet and dabbling in urban foraging. “It reframes the city from an individual viewpoint, giving you a load of emotional involvement with it,” Rensten explains. “And that turns people into ecological stewards. Which is exactly what this planet needs.”