Magazine article The Spectator

The New Seekers

Magazine article The Spectator

The New Seekers

Article excerpt

Two summers ago I drove to Poland with a friend to finish a house that she had been building near the border with Russia. Our journey brought us to Warsaw unexpectedly early in the morning, and so we parked by a covered market to wait for the coffee shops to open. There, with the engine cooling, we watched rickety stalls being buried under stacks of fruit. In between them, other offerings appeared: boxes of pink shampoo, a heap of cheesecakes and, guarded by a lady on a canvas stool, two dozen toffee-coloured mushrooms.

It was this stall, with its little rows of lop-sided fungi, that drew the crowds. Businessmen strained down to smell them. A couple quickly bought half the stock. Someone else pulled up a stool to ask where she'd been picking. We all felt a sense of the cool woods and a buzz from the forager's luck.

During that summer, we started doing some serious foraging. We were living in a village surrounded on two sides by woods and opposite deep, clean Lake Hanca. Foraging, I learnt, is about a slow intimacy with places, a secret knowledge of pockets of darkness or narrow belts of seasonal dryness. It is about serendipity, too: the joy of walking slowly, head down, sensing the light level dropping and then - boom - blueberries.

Returning to London, I could not quite slough off the foraging routine. It started with an over-zealous plucking of other people's rosemary bushes. Hyde Park seemed remarkably well stocked with sweet chestnuts, and then there were the canals with their blackberry bushes and sorrel. I noticed a fig tree against the Vibe Bar on Brick Lane. Allotments called out from the overland trains, and abandoned tracks running north of Finsbury Park seemed worth a wander. Was scrumping allowed? There seemed to be plenty of Pick Your Owns within the M25. Could I become a member of a fishing club? Would there really be trout in the canals? What would they taste like?

People have always enjoyed the cultural 'forage' for new dishes and flavours brought to London from the countryside: today, buffalo cheese is for sale on a Sunday under Peckham library, while bizarrely large snails are traded from a caravan two streets away. Every borough has its own type of bread, and a store in Hammersmith stocks vodka containing a meadow grass that wild European bison feed on.

Real foraging is even more satisfying. All around us in London are the indigenous and exotic plants that have taken root in the city, tapping down into the buried tributaries of the Thames. For the forager, the A-Z is a map of a different city altogether. The roads sink into insignificance, and the pockets of wasteland attract the highlighter pen: allotments, curious dots of old orchards and common lands, the ghosts of ancient woodland such as Theydon Bois. …

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