The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Hannah Betts hunts down fabulous flavours in Battersea Park
Hannah Betts confirms that it really is possible to find delicious ingredients growing wild – even in a south London open space
Battersea Park, Saturday, 10.27am, and a sweaty, athletic type has just careered into her running partner at the sight of my friend Geoff, South London’s own silver fox, nibbling suggestively on cherry plum blossom.
“I’m sorry,” she splutters indignantly. “I just didn’t expect to see that,” as if she has just witnessed the world’s most obscene spectacle.
I imagine this is very far from being the case, given that we are exploring the area of Battersea Park adjacent to the A3216, known in popular parlance as “the cottaging woods”.
However, our purpose is entirely above board. For, somewhere in the undergrowth, at a Covid-safe distance, lurks Liz Knight, one of Britain’s foremost wild-food experts, founder of Hay-on-Wye’s Forage Fine Foods, and author of the brilliant – and beautiful – new tome: Forage: Wild Plants to Gather, Cook and Eat.
Foraging is achingly au courant right now. In its Food & Drink Report 2021, Waitrose declared gathered grub to be one of the year’s top trends, not least during lockdown when all we do is tramp about. Liz’s book will delight those who enjoyed herbalist Christine Iverson’s The Hedgerow Apothecary, which came out last year, while Liz herself appears in the soon-to-be screened second series of Channel 5’s Escape to the Farm, when she takes Kate Humble on a stroll, before Kate preps plants from the book.
Unlike Ms Humble, I am not exactly at one with nature. In truth, I hate the stuff. But, I do love Liz, whom I met a couple of years ago during an idyllic May weekend at Chepstow’s Wyndcliffe Court, where she was hosting a wild cookery lesson (wyndcliffecourt. com). We wandered about its Italianate Arts & Crafts-style garden, gathering fragrant bundles, then headed back to host Sarah and Anthony Clay’s kitchen for a vast cook- and cocktail-up, where Knight impressed me with the potency of her sorrel, pine and elderflower mojitos and everyone got happily hammered.
For Liz is no hair-shirted, greenerthan-thou tree-hugger. She eats meat, craves pickled onion Monster Munch, and grew up in “a normal street in a normal town just outside London”.
However, in a gloriously Alice-inWonderland moment, she was fed a fuchsia berry aged 8 and was never the same again. In her 20s, she became a carer in Monmouthshire old people’s centres, where her charges taught her about the beauty of wild fare, “a lexicon growing forgotten”. Now aged 45, married with three daughters, she writes, teaches, and creates stupendous wild botanical seasonings, condiments and jams that have graced the shelves of Fortnum’s. From her kitchen in the Black Mountains she looks out on lanes billowing with meadowsweet and pastures running riot with sorrel.
What, then, will our green goddess make of the distinctly postlapsarian – if not post-apocalyptic – scenes in downtown Battersea of a weekend: all empty nitrous-oxide canisters and dog-turd disposal bags? “Great! Good! No waterproofs, then?” she inquires, as I trip through the gates in my silk and velvet ensemble, ready to stuff weeds into my handbag. At least I’m not in heels. Geoff, my most food-literate friend, and the genius behind the gourmet pizza company Basilico, is more suitably attired. Still, both of us look foppish next to Liz’s cape and basket. She hasn’t brought her branch-bending shepherd’s crook, but looks every inch the rustic rambler next to the Nike-d hordes.
A cursory glance towards the railings and Liz has already discovered speedwell (edible flowers), shepherd’s purse and bittercress (both wild mustards), plus a clump of sow thistle. “A lot like lettuce,” she notes, “used in salads or wilted as a veg. You don’t see it much in the hills, but there’s so much here!” But, then, over 200,000 of the world’s almost 400,000 plant species are edible: from trees with leaves that make almond-tasting liqueurs, shrubs adorned with flowers ripe with the scent of coconut, to weeds that have roots reminiscent of cloves.
“What about pollution?” I demand, as we amble towards the woods, a dog cocking its leg in the vicinity. “Does it wash off?” “Airborne stuff does,” she explains. “The important thing is not to gather from contaminated sites: industrial ground and even churchyards where there could be heavy metals. But parks are fine so long as they’re not royal, where foraging is illegal.”
Cleavers abound. Minerally and earthy, these members of the coffee family are great in tea or wilted into salads, helping to eliminate toxins. Liz is known to whip them up into a cracking mousse. “Hawthorn is good with cheese, right?” I crow, remembering something from school. “It is!” cries our oracle. “The leaves, flowers and berries are antioxidant-rich. Add them to salads and soups. But, don’t eat that, Betts, it’s yew: as toxic as hemlock – first rule in the book.”
We also steer clear of cow parsley, which is wild chervil, but easily confused with actual hemlock.
I mistake cow parsley for nettle. But, then, I think everything is nettle, actual nettles apart. Liz lives for the spiky stuff: “Nettles are one of the world’s most nutritious superfoods, containing everything we need for cell formation. Yes, they sting, but plunging them into boiling water for a minute kills all that, then leaves can be made into pesto, used in cakes, or stirred into lemony ice cream. We’ve also got dead nettles, part of the mint family. They’re delicious wilted like purple-sprouting broccoli, chopped into a bean salad, or puréedwith grapes into a sauce for roast chicken.”
I’m more confident harvesting wild garlic because of the smell. Part of the onion family, its presence is an indicator of ancient woodland. “Delicious raw or cooked,” instructs Liz. “The flowers are really pungent – I sell pickles made with unopened ones. The seeds are incredible: so garlicky, like the pearls you get in molecular gastronomy, only better.”
Cherry plum blossom is snowing down on us and I stick out my tongue experimentally. “Go ahead!” our guru urges. This leads to the aforementioned erotic blossom incident, and a spot of silver birch licking. Once birch leaves sprout, they can be used as a tea to cure urinary infections, or infused into vodka.
A quick chomp on some anxietyrelieving magnolia buds (trendy, delicious, all ginger-laced with wasabi and lemongrass), and Geoff and I hop into a
What will Liz make of Battersea’s empty nitrous oxide canisters and dog-poop disposal bags?
cab to cook up our Battersea bounty. For pandemic safety purposes, he sits in the garden shouting tips from Liz’s guide (“Japanese knotweed can become a lemon fool!”, “Use tulip petals as canapé bases!”), while I see what I can concoct.
The book is exquisitely illustrated, its recipes glorious: elderflower fritters, crab apple aioli, steamed fish with honeysuckle, linden leaf madeleines, salted acorn praline, evening primrose syllabub, washed down with cocktail after modish cocktail. Improvising with what we’ve picked, I knock up a wild garlic and nettle risotto, strewn with speedwell and hawthorn, followed by violet flower shortbread served with (Liz’s incredible) meadowsweet jam, and a dollop of (OK, Co-op) ice cream.
I say it myself, but our lunch was bloody brilliant, with the added satisfaction of being free, winning Instagram and thus lockdown.
Recipes will be available in my own forthcoming book: Food Found Walking the Dog.
Recipes taken from FORAGE: Wild Plants to Gather, Cook and Eat by Liz Knight, illustrations by Rachel Pedder-Smith, published by Laurence King at £19.99