Urban foraging: Not just for hobos

Pick of the season: London is full of berries right now.

It’s easy to forget where fruit and berries come from if you only ever pick them from the shelves at Tesco. But London is ripe with bushes and trees just waiting to be harvested. And it doesn’t cost a penny! Expert forager and food blogger Brie O’Keefe gives us her lowdown on what’s out there for the urban forager.

Last Saturday a leisurely stroll along Regent’s canal turned into a harvest mission: first there were the blackberries, hanging black and juicy, moments away from our fingertips, too ripe to refuse.

Then we found the large rosemary bush, surrounded by sage with enough herb laden branches to be dried at home and used all winter in pasta sauces or fresh bread.

Moving on we passed elder trees, whose fragrant spring flowers had now turned into bunches of black berries that could be made into jelly before we found damsons and sloes – which could be infused with gin for a delicious Christmas treat.

And finally – although I don’t condone it, a trip into a cemetery in Highgate gave us enough fresh apples for more than a few crumbles.

Although summer is over my friends, the harvest season lives on, and with a little sleuthing and a Tupperware container a world of culinary delights await you.

So what’s in season now? The London Forager has a seasonal list of what can be found within the M25 and when it’s at its best.  But in short, now is the time to pick blackberries, elderberries, sloes, damsons and mushrooms.

Sloes are great in gin. Photo: David Fisher/ Flickr

How do I find them? Fruit City has an interactive map where people can log fruit trees they’ve found around the capital, but in truth, you just need to get out there and keep your eyes peeled.  Unfortunately most foragers (myself included) don’t want to log the exact sources of our produce as we don’t want our trees to be overpicked the next time we want to make a batch of sloe gin.

So I’ve found something – how can I be sure? A google image search is your best friend in this case, and don’t leave home without printed images of what you want.  Look not just at the fruit, but at the leaves.  Find out the height of the tree/bush, whether it has thorns, and where it generally grows.  For example, damsons and sloes look almost identical, but sloes grow on a bush with thorns, are slightly smaller, have a sour taste and a large pip.  Damsons grow on trees, have no thorns and the fruit is sweeter.

You can easily identify most fruits and herbs with images, but please, please don’t forage mushrooms on your own.  For a course on where to find delicious ‘shrooms check out Fungi to be with though all of his forays for 2010 are sold out.

What do I do with them?

Damsons and sloes can be made into deliciously sweet infused gin or vodka.  See this recipe.

You can also make amazing damson chutney, courtesy of Delia.

Rosehips, blackberries and elderberries can be made into jelly to be served with roast meat.  See these recipes:

Rosehip and apple jelly

Elderberry jelly

Blackberry jelly

Blackberries and apples can make great jam (blackberries have too many seeds to make pure jam):

Blackberry and apple jam