The Urban Forager – A Philosophy of Use

Foraging is a pursuit usually associated with the countryside. When we think of foragers, we think of adults and children standing under huge apple trees in the corner of deserted fields or next to hedges at the side of country roads, with plastic bags in one hand and the other hand sticky, fruit-stained grasping handfuls of ripeness. This is an alluring image of foraging, one which seems to link back to some countryside past and gone but still lingering in the veins of the people. As the afternoons and evenings ripen and the sun tints the leaves and trunks gold, the urge to collect food rises within us and leads us into the fields and down the country lanes.

Sometimes it can be hard for an urban-dweller to reconnect to this seemingly ancient sensation as the country lanes have been replaced with roads and the hedges with fences. Nature, as urbanity’s constant enemy, appears everywhere in the gaps that humans leave and continually creates new ones for next years’ relations to exploit. Foraging is not just for people with access to the countryside, then, as the countryside is persistently finding its way in to the towns.

When foraging in the countryside, certain ‘foraging rules’ apply. The first, and perhaps the most important, is to make sure that you only take a third of the thing that you are foraging from one area; the other two thirds are for nature, allowing animals to eat the rest and therefore allowing the plants to grow and spread next year. Make sure you know what it is that you are picking, is another extremely important rule. Buy a plant and tree spotting guide; I found one the other day for 50p in a charity shop or borrow one from a friend and teach yourself. It is essential that you know what it is that you have found before you pick it as it could be something poisonous. The other rule, a classic among all countryside users, is: don’t leave anything but your footprints. This may sound twee but I think the sentiment of the phrase is appropriate, especially considering the fact that towns and cities are already choked with litter.       

If these rules are followed then the enjoyment of forgaing can be ensured for future foragers and nature can be allowed to continue without humans getting in the way.

The employment of the word ‘use’ in connection with nature has come to have bad connotations; people often link it to the use of the word ‘exploitation’. Although the full exploitation of nature, in the sense of draining nature dry and leaving nothing behind, can never be excused, a thoughtful ‘use’ of nature links us with our past. Humans, before agriculture was discovered and developed, were hunter-gatherers. As agriculture became the main source of food for humans, we got more and more reliant on the products of agriculture, forgetting many of the skills that we had developed over years of hunter-gathering. As a result, the majority of modern people in Western society are willing to accept agriculture, the production and products, as the only source of food available to us. This makes a lot of people in Western society helpless and reliant on others for the source of their food. The concept of foraging, then, is more than just a way to fill a pleasant Sunday afternoon; it is a way to reconnect with ancient traditions and a way to reclaim the sourcing of our food from the agri-giants. Couple this with the knowledge passed from forager to forager and the familiarity of cooking with the foraged food, and you have a whole lifestyle that unites the modern person with the origins of their food. The concept of Urban Foraging is even more important to the modern person as, in the cities and towns, the source of our foods seem further away than ever.

As with all hunter-gathering and foraging, the person doing these activities must look out for ‘opportunities’. The finding of food is, to start off with, a mostly random business. Nature tends to be full of chance; the spread of seeds and the changeable ideals of town planners and residents means that plants, bushes and trees can be found all over cities and towns. The Urban Forager must therefore be always open to opportunities as they could be available at any time.

A concept that is similar to the idea of the Urban Forager is the flaneur. As a recognisable character, the flaneur would be found strolling around the late 19th century and early 20th century streets of cities and was popularised by writers such as Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. The flaneur would walk around the urban space in a state of open consciousness, accepting and weighing outside influence. The flaneur watches the streets, buildings and people and assesses them in his/her mind. The flaneur is not always critical of the society he/she sees but is constantly measuring it and commenting on it either on paper or in the mind. The flaneur makes no impression on their surroundings and takes nothing from it as they watch. This is the main difference between the flaneur and the Urban Forager. The Urban Forager must stay alert and consciously aware of their surroundings; always looking for opportunities but the Urban Forager is looking for something to ‘use’ rather than to just watch. The word ‘use’ is used as earlier; a thoughtful ‘use’ as opposed to the greed-driven and thoughtless ‘exploitation’. As the Urban Forager is walking, the main opportunities that they are looking for is the location of bushes, trees and plants that they can use. The great thing about finding a useable plant is that the next year, when the edible parts have grown back, the plant will still hopefully be there. Other opportunities that the Urban Forager can use are only available to the Urban Forager and not to the traditional country forager. These are opportunities that come from local businesses and the residents of towns and cities. The idea of people taking food from supermarket and shop waste bins has been created by the societies calling themselves ‘freegans’. This is certainly one type of urban foraging but a lot of supermarket and shop food is prepared and packed with all the usual additives and preservatives. This type of foraging, while profitable, still relies on agriculture and, as it uses pre-packaged and prepared food, is still helpless consumption. Far better is the finding of raw food from locally-owned shops. Supermarkets will never give food away when they think that they will make a profit from it, therefore unused food will be put in waste bins. Smaller, person (rather than company) owned shops are far more likely to give things to people who ask nicely. The free raw food gained from shops can then be prepared in the way that the forager wishes without the additives that the supermarkets feel necessary to put in. Another great form of Urban Foraging is when the forager sees something that is on someone else’s obviously private property. There has been many times when I have been walking along the street and have noticed berries or fruits on the floor, squashed by passers-by. Looking up, I see that the fruit has come from a tree that is growing in someone else’s front garden. If the tree or plant is still full with fruit and the owners of the plant are letting the fruit fall unused onto the street, it is fairly safe to assume that they are not too bothered about harvesting the fruits. A simple knock on the door is all it takes to be able to forage some great free fruit, although it would be wise and friendly to offer the owner of the plant some of the products of either the plant (some of the fruit you’ve picked) or some of the products of your cooking (a pie, a cake, a bottle of alcohol made with the fruit, etc). This ‘giving something back’ is also commendable for shopkeepers; if they let you have a load of apples, give them back a jar of the apple chutney  you made with them to say thanks.

Now that the forager has discovered the source of his/her food, they can share their knowledge of these areas with other foragers. This means that the empowerment of urban foraging can be spread to others. It also means that you can tell others that you have picked a certain area, informing them tacitly that they shouldn’t pick too much as they might not leave enough for nature. The sharing of knowledge and advice also means that you can create a foraging community, and there is nothing more satisfying than picking your own food, cooking it and then sharing it with others.

With a lot of food, particularly food from agriculture but also from foraging, there is the seasonal problem of gluts. Gluts of food are partly natural, as seasonal foods come to fruition there are a lot of them according to the season, but the issue of gluts are exacerbated by Western agriculture’s over-production. For the forager, the problem of gluts is easily solved; don’t pick as much of the food if you can’t use it. Using gluts in cooking is, however, a good way of storing up food in Autumn ready for the mostly foodless Winter. The use of food from shops also requires the forager to know about ways of cooking bulk quantities of one food; most shops tend to have one or two particular foods that are left over and need to be used up. It is very useful for foragers to have a good selection of recipes stored up for these sorts of occasions and the creation of a foraging community is very useful for this; the more people you share with, the more advice and recipes you can gather.

Jams, marmalades, pickles and chutneys are great traditional and fairly easy ways of using these glut fruits and vegetables but there are other ways which are just as easy and are delicious as well.

Here are some that may help if you have a large glut of certain fruits:

Soft Fruits

Soft fruits such as damsons, berries, plums, peaches, sloes, apricots tend to grow on a large scale and so a lot of them will grow and ripen at the same time, leaving the forager with an exciting challenge. The standard with soft fruits is crumbles or pies which are delicious are extremely easy to make. Soft fruits also make great flavoured liquors such as Sloe Gin, Damson Vodka, Blackberry Brandy or any combination of soft fruit and spirit. It couldn’t be easier: take a large sealable jar, put in 500g of soft fruit for every litre of spirit, shake the fruit around to break the skins, add around 400-500g of sugar (more or less depending on how sweet you like the finished product) and then pour on the spirit. Give the mixture a good shake and then shake every day afterwards. After three months, the drink should be ready, strain the fruit out and transfer the drink into bottles.

Another great way to use the gluts of soft fruit is to make sorbet. The sorbet is easy to make and can be kept in the freezer, prolonging its longevity. Place the soft fruit in a pan; cover the fruit with water so that there is about an inch of water over the fruit. Boil for ten minutes, until the flavour and colour of the fruit seeps in to the water. Strain the fruit out of the liquid and put the liquid back in the pan. The cooked fruit can be added to pies or crumbles. Add sugar and taste until the liquid is sweet enough. Boil the mixture again for a minute and take off the boil, adding the juice of half a lemon. Allow the mixture to cool and place in a sealable container. When cool, put in the freezer and allow it to set. Stir the mixture every two hours as it is setting to disturb the ice crystals. After about eight hours, the sorbet should be set and ready for eating. Try it with apple pie or chocolate desserts.

Apples and Pears

Apples and pears also tend to grow and ripen in gluts and so it is good to have some recipes that use larger quantities to make the most of them. Again, the traditional methods are baking them, making them into pies, crumbles and cakes but there are other more unusual ways of using up large quantities of these fruits. One great way is making cider, or perry with pears. I once made a drink with a mixture of both pear and apple juice which was strong and hearty but also smooth and delicious. Large quantities of apples and pears can be foraged from apple and pear trees but they can also be found at local shops. If a local shopkeeper has a lot of bruised or damaged apples and pears he/she may be willing to give them to you for free rather than trying to sell them, especially if you tell him/her that there will be a bottle of cider or an apple pie at the end of it for them. With cider and perry, it doesn’t matter if the fruit is bruised or damaged as the fruit will ferment more quickly. When you have the fruit back at your house, you need to get the juice from the fruit. In traditional cider making, you would use a cider press to squash the juice out of the fruit, but not many people have a press in their home. I used a cheese grater to grate the apples and pears and then squashed the juice out using my hands into a separate bowl; not very sophisticated but it worked. The grated apple or pear flesh can be used as the filling for pies, cakes or crumbles. Next I transferred the juice to a clean plastic bucket and added a couple of tablespoons of dried yeast and about five tablespoons of sugar. I stirred the juice, put a clean tea-towel over the top and left it for four days. I put the bucket in the bath, when the bath wasn’t being used, as the juice tends to froth over when it first gets going. The cloth protects the juice from flies and stops the froth from going back into the fermenting mixture. After the four days, I put the mixture in clean jars. The jars should be sealable but still allow gas to escape; Kilner jars are perfect. I wrapped the jars in a tea towel and then put them in the airing cupboard, but anywhere slightly warmer than room temperature will do nicely. Keep checking on the juice every couple of days and when the mixture stops fizzing, it is finished. Transfer the cider or perry in to screw top bottles and leave for a week or so to allow the cider to settle down. Most of my cider doesn’t last a fortnight but any that does mellows considerably and tastes like sharp apple juice. Be warned though; homebrew cider and perry is usually much stronger than shop-bought.

Apart from fruits, wild herbs and weeds can also be made into delicious things. Dandelions can be found in many places in cities and they are not only tasty in salads, they make a lovely homemade beer.

Herbs such as rosemary, mint and parsley can be found in wasteland; mostly spread from people’s gardens by the wind or birds. These herbs can, of course, be used in cooking but other, non- edible uses are just as satisfying. Finding lavender in cities is mostly not too difficult as it has been a favourite of town-planners on the edges of parks and recreation grounds for years. As well as being a great flavouring for beers, it makes great herbal oil and a great natural fragrance that is both cleansing and relaxing.  All herbs can be used in these same ways; rosemary is cleansing, mint is refreshing and parsley invigorating.

We can see that the Urban Forager has many fruits, berries, leaves, herbs and weeds to pick, many recipes to follow and many varied opportunities. All can be shared with other members of the foraging community. In fact, the sharing of food and information about food is essential to foragers as it suits the hunter-gather elements that are missing from modern agri-fed life.

There is nothing lonelier than a person who has to eat alone and supermarkets and the modern Western agricultural apparatus thrive on this. Someone who is lonely, and unhappy because of it, will eat more. A person eating alone day after day is forced by supermarkets to buy food superfluous to their needs. The foods have short shelf-lives and solitary consumers find it hard to use all of a product before it goes out of date, leading to unnecessary waste. Larger companies will put things like potatoes into plastic bags, ostensibly to allow the customer to see the potatoes, but also allowing sunlight and fluorescent lighting to turn the potatoes green. Modern market-led agriculture is pushing more and more people into a wasteful lifestyle, mainly because it forces a divided and separated people to accept their option as the only possible food source. There are many reasons, theories and ideas linked to this debate, but it is fairly obvious that food shared is not food wasted.

We are a long way from our origins as hunter-gatherers, but some feeling of purpose, some feeling of empowerment and freedom can be gained from linking with these roots, no matter how small. Foraging may seem like a trivial step to make, especially in built-up cities, but foraging is the most basic of food sourcing methods and when we forage, and cook with the results  of all the hard work, we can feel what it is to be in charge of our own lives again.

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