In Camberwell, I ate a Mars bar, some Doritos, and loads of flowers, buds, leaves and weeds. An adult with a home, in 2015, I paid for the privilege of going to a public park to scoff up bits of foliage. It was worth every penny.
In the autumn I’d been mushroom foraging and loved it. So my friend Sam and I treated our friend Pops to a ‘London Park Foraging Walk’ in Burgess Park, a 10-minute drive from our urban homes.
It was a sunny but freezing spring morning, so there were a good number of people around, although it wasn’t heaving. The park sports a cafe as well as one of the most modern playgrounds I’ve ever seen, so there were families around. It’s a broad and flat expanse of grass, so there were dog-walkers around. There are loads of different trees and patches of wilderness which have been, rightly, left feral. And that’s why we were around.
Our guide, John Rensten, took a group of 15 of us to start our trip by a pretty scant-looking tree. A lime tree, or Linden tree; apparently a big favourite of Victorian park planners. At any one time these trees are producing one or all of three edible things. First things first, we weren’t to eat anything off the base of the tree. Even the most iron-gutted human shouldn’t risk eating up dog sharticles.
It was too early for this poor nudey tree to offer us any of its leaves or blossoms but we did try a little leaf bud. It starts off being delicious, fruity and sweet but then because of its mucilage, after a few chews it begins to turn to bogeys in your mouth. It was like trying to swallow ectoplasm. Imagine okra and times it by 100.
I hoofed a little primrose. Who knew? You can just scoff them up as they are. It tasted light, creamy almost, and a tiny bit like a melon. They’re so pretty, I optimistically envisage myself scattering them over future salads and calling myself Nigella Grylls.
We spotted a wood avens, which to a plant-cretin like me looks like a strawberry. John had already dug up some root and dried it for us to try. Phwoar, it was more clovey than cloves but with a hint of red bush tea. So lovely. He said if you grind it up it makes lush biscuits. There was something magical about tasting spices that people would have been eating in England hundreds of years ago. Before the spice trade our national grub wasn’t as dull as you’d think.
John gave us some brittle he’d made from birch sap. Woah. It was like a heavenly dream about North America and snacks. A crunchy, wholesome, floral caramel. He explained how you need a ‘sap tap’ for the trees and Pops noted it was a bit like a ‘middle-class Hunger Games‘. We all wolfed it so gratefully that he realised we needed a warming break for teas and wees. That’s where the restorative Doritos etc. came in. We weren’t 100% ‘wildling’ yet.
Onwards. We learned the vital difference between hemlock and cow parsley. Frighteningly similar-looking. Hemlock is the uber-poison. It’s what slowly and painfully killed Socrates. Cow parsley though? Yeah, nice. Apparently. You won’t catch me testing it.
We met a plant called stinking Roger, which fittingly does wonders for one’s colon. We saw daffodils, how lovely. Toxic. Same as bluebells and snowdrops. All poison. Ha ha. Bastard stinging nettles though? Delicious and amazing for you. Even the sting does something good to your immune system and muscles. Eaten, nettles are nutritional magic: 30 per cent protein, full of iron and with loads of medicinal perks. They smell like a fresher, earthier version of those lemony handwipes you get in KFC. They taste best cooked, so we didn’t eat them then but I’ve every intention now of making a nettle-filled saag aloo, or some booze of some sort.
On spotting a dandelion we got a great rant from John about its diuretic qualities. The French calling it ‘pissenlit’: piss the bed. Again he recommended using the roots, just like burdock, because there is so much the unique flavours can add. He produced a flask of naturally caffeine-free coffee he’d made from roasted dandelion roots. It was incredible, a bit like nutmeg. There’s not really any other way of describing the taste than ‘dandelion.’ He said burdock roots make great crisps – a bold statement to a woman he’d just seen eat some cheese Doritos.
We tried and learned about so many, many more things than I’ve had room to warble on about here. I’ve not even skimmed the surface. My stone did maybe one bounce. It was enlightening and inspiring for the mouth and for the brains. If you’re into eating everything around you, I couldn’t recommend it more.
Where: Burgess Park Walk (Camberwell, SE17) – £30 per person
Accessibility: This park and everywhere we went in it were fully accessible and there was an accessible toilet in the cafe. There was, however, three hours of standing and strolling round.