When most people think of foraging for food they conjure up rural landscapes of lush vegetation, not a scrubby park in London. However, London can provide some rich pickings for foragers if you know where to look. John Rensten has been foraging in London for over a decade and, when he set up The Green gastropub in Clerkenwell in 2004, was among the first London restauranteurs to utilise foraged food in his menus. He no longer has the restaurant and instead dedicates his time to educating groups of Londoners about where to find foraged food in the city.
“I study wild food, pick wild food, obsess about wild food and love sharing what I have learnt, running city foraging walks,” says John. “I want more people to know about the amazing wild food that grows all around us.”
His website has a wealth of information about what you can do with the food that you forage, from salads to a wild bento box. John holds regular guided walks in London parks throughout the year and can also arrange walks for private parties.
If you want to find inspiration for your cocktails as well as your dishes, then Jason Irving will be taking a guided walk out on February 13 looking at different wild plants that can be used to make bitters, syrups and liqueurs. He will show you how to safely identify them, and you get to finish off with a wild cocktail.
“Leading foraging courses in London has taught me that you never have to go far to find wild food. For example, I have found three cornered garlic (one of the several wild garlics, which tastes more oniony than the others) near Euston station, mugwort (a close relative of wormwood, and used for flavouring beer) in Stratford Olympic park, and elderflowers near Tower bridge,” says Jason. “There are hundreds of different species of wild edible plants growing in London. Many of these are common native ‘weeds’ that can be found all year round, such as plantains, cleavers, chickweed, dead nettles, garlic mustard, that can be used in salads or cooked as greens. As an urban centre, there are also planted trees that can provide a range of fruits and blossoms. I particularly like the availability of lime blossoms in London, which make a delicious tea traditionally used to aid sleep. There are also rowan berries that can be used to make jelly, elder trees are very common in parks and wasteland providing flowers for cordials and desserts and fruits for syrups and vinegars.”
If you don’t want to forage in the city yourself, then there are several restaurants in London where you can sample foraged food on the menu. Dominic Teague, executive chef at Indigo restaurant at One Aldwych in Covent Garden, has not only created a dairy- and gluten-free menu of light seasonal fare, but also champions foraged produce. “It’s exciting to use products with unusual flavours,” he explains. “You get some nice surprises with foraged food such as wild sea beet and wood sorrel.” Teague gets his supplies from Yun Hider of the Mountain Food Company who scours the Severn Estuary, Pembrokeshire coast and north Devon coast for wild ingredients that can be served in the restaurant. “I love that I can place my order with Yun who goes out to pick it right away – it can be on the guest’s plate in a day.” Some of the foraged ingredients included in the menu are sea purslane in the pork tenderloin dish, wood sorrel in the beetroot starter, sea aster in the pumpkin gnocchi and marsh samphire in the home-baked bread.
The Gladwin Brothers, who opened their first restaurant the Shed in Notting Hill in 2012, are perhaps the most committed champions of foraged food on the London restaurant scene. The daily-changing menus at the Shed and their restaurant Rabbit in Chelsea (which opened in 2014) generally feature a heavy smattering of foraged food. Ingredients such as wild garlic, chervil, meadow sweet, chickweed and mallow picked from places such as Nutbourne West Sussex and even Battersea Park frequently show up on the menu.
“Our ethos is what grows together goes together and this is highlighted throughout our entire menu,” says Oliver Gladwin, the chef of the trio of brothers (there is also a farmer and front-of-house man in their mix). I went down to their King’s Road restaurant to try a few dishes for myself and was impressed by the neighbourhood buzz about the place. The concept is like British tapas, with tables of friends able to order lots of tasty morsels to share. The menu is divided into ‘mouthfuls’, such as confit egg yolk or mushroom marmite eclair, ‘slow cooking’ with dishes such as cod belly and dill ravioli with lemon butter or lamb chips with lemon and harissa and ‘fast cooking’, with such palate teasers as tempura duck liver with red wine lentils, black carrot, lovage and bacon jam. Diners are happy there is a no-waste ethos and are encouraged to be adventurous in their choices with the nose-to-tail cooking.
A new restaurant in West London, Tiny Leaf, has gone a step further with their no-waste ethos by actually utilising waste food in their cooking. Chef and food activist Justin Horne believes that their new venture is the first restaurant of its kind in London. He has devised a menu of organic vegetarian food that uses waste food from various suppliers across London. He hasn’t made life easy for himself by specifying organic. “I can get hold of loads of food waste in London, but such a small percentage of it is organic,” he says. Their bread comes from the organic bakery down the road, while vegetables come from Whole Foods or Planet Organic or Langridge, an organic wholesalers. “We get whatever we are given and then I create a menu around it. Of course if we end up with several crates of parsnips or something then we also have people that we donate our excess to. There is a community kitchen nearby who takes any of our surplus.”
The menu is exciting with no whiff of the skip about it. Dishes such as ‘cauliflower and red lentil pilaf with rose and pistachio’ and ‘chargrilled celeriac and broccoli steaks with babaganoush’ are on the menu for when the restaurant opens its doors to the public on Thursday [Jan 28].
If you are keen to sample the London foraged food scene for yourself, then check out our London hotel deals and start planning your trip.