Food prices have climbed to the point where Aldi now feels like Tesco, Tesco feels like Waitrose, and Waitrose feels like - I don’t know - somewhere extremely expensive. ONS data shows that the price of food has risen by an average of 14.6 percent when compared with 2021 - the highest increase in 42 years. Research shows the average shop could rise by £12 a week. Combined with high inflation and soaring energy costs, it’s hardly surprising that one in five UK households are currently experiencing some form of food insecurity.
But what if we didn’t have to rely on shops alone? Are we not descendants of hyper-successful hunter gatherers? I decided to see if I could forage enough from London’s urban pantry to keep me ticking over for one working week.
Concerns: I’m an average cook with no improvisational panache. I have no foraging experience and although it’s unseasonably warm, it’s still late autumn and most things aren’t in season.
Undaunted, I arranged a crash course with master forager John the Poacher for the Wednesday before my challenge starts. John forages much of his food, but advises me that to live off foraging alone would require advance planning and more understanding than I’m going to glean over a day or two. With this in mind, I decide to allow myself a daily portion of non-foraged carbs, some odds and ends from my garden and cooking basics like oil, salt and pepper.
As we make our way towards Hackney Downs, John clues me in on some urban foraging rules: “You can take anything in a public park for your own consumption, but you can’t sell it. Foraging in the Royal Parks is illegal, and don’t take anything from private property unless it’s hanging over the street.” John points out chervil and three-cornered leek - basically a poor man’s wild garlic - and more obvious things like rosemary, sage and stinging nettle, which is edible but suffers from terrible PR. He teaches me to identify fairy ring mushrooms and we gather a decent haul of palm-sized field blewits.
Hopefully it goes without saying that picking your own mushrooms can be very risky: For almost every edible fungus or berry there is an inedible evil twin that can do you a serious disservice, or in some cases, kill you. I am glad to have an expert on hand. By the time my hour-long crash course is complete my collection of herbs, leaves and mushrooms is looking hearty - but it won’t be enough for five days.
I convince my girlfriend that foraging can be a cute date and that Lewisham’s biggest park (combined with a free trial on a fungus identification app) should be fertile ground. That weekend we find about 2kg of comically large shaggy parasol mushrooms and a decent helping of jelly ear fungus - things are going so well that I even slap on a marigold and grab some nettles.
By the end of the weekend things aren’t looking too bad - with my fridge doing a decent impression of the Zagreb Mushroom Museum. I’m optimistic about not going hungry - but less so about avoiding guttural trauma… Shaggy parasols cause gastric upset in 4 percent of people who eat them, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Monday is a WFH day and starts with the fairy rings I’d found with John which I fry (for twice as long as needed to ensure that any parasites are thoroughly incinerated) with some three-cornered leek for a garlicky kick. It tastes fine, but I spend the next few hours worrying about every sound my tummy makes. The worry passes and before long it’s time for dinner. The blewits are beginning to smell like a pub basement - so I cautiously make a blewit risotto using three-cornered leek again and liquid from the mushies as stock. It actually comes out surprisingly well and leaves leftovers.
Day two is my last day working from home and the clocks have changed, the lost hour leaves only today’s lunch-break to forage for top-ups. I fancy my chances, but 45 minutes of searching the cold, wet grass produces only a microdose of fairy rings. I console myself with a nutritious nettle soup - normally thickened with things I’m lacking like potatoes and onion. It tastes alright in a novelty ‘I’m eating a stinging nettle’ way - but it’s thinner than a Liz Truss highlights reel and two bowls leaves me feeling more hydrated than fed. I raid the risotto leftovers.
Wednesday’s a long one, working on location. Hoping that the slow release energy will help me resist the catering truck, I breakfast on the last cold spoonfuls of risotto. I don’t normally eat lunch - so in a way I’ve been preparing for this challenge for years. I’m able to soldier through to the evening when I bulk-roast and fry the shaggy parasols, along with some foraged rosemary and a pinch of salt. Anxious Googling reminds me of the risks these big bastards pose and cheerily informs me they’re also popular with worms and maggots. I plan to make a three-cornered leek pesto to serve on top of the mushrooms and couscous - my guilty carb of penance - in an Italian / North African / suburban park fusion experiment.
The shaggy parasol gamble pays off - I don’t feel ill, and the meal’s the slam-dunk of the week. The pesto has a fresh and tangy flavour that’s absorbed by the couscous. The mushrooms are meaty, with the rosemary and salt adding some diversity to a mushroom-y taste I’m already growing tired of. The sense of adventure is wearing thinner than my nettle soup and a video on how to cook acorns doesn’t tempt me to try it. I’ve stopped looking forward to meals and am craving sugars, protein and beige.
I finish the nettle soup for breakfast on Thursday and add the last of the fairy rings to it for kicks. I plough through another day of gainful employment then reheat some parasols to put on toast with chives from the garden. At this point I learned that parasol stems end up looking and tasting like a sun-dried Peperami when cooked and become inedible. This cuts my stocks in half, but we’re at the end of the line, baby. It’s been a week of reasonable highs and minor lows, but mostly mushrooms.
In a homage to Fish and a Rice Cake guy, Friday starts with the last of the shaggy parasols on toast and concludes back at the fridge wondering what to eat. That’s when I noticed the untouched jelly ear fungus. This is the wackiest mushroom I’ve foraged and would not look out of place at Torture Garden. I decided to stir fry them along with a chilli from my garden - a bountiful and flavourful resource I haven’t thought of using until now, annoyingly - and some noodles.
I’m grateful for the chilli’s heat and the fungus provides an interesting jelly texture that is somehow also crunchy, but it’s ultimately an unsexy dish. Feeling dejected, my mushroom ravaged mind gives way to temptation and at the last hurdle I bend the rules by jazzing up my noodles with a splash of soy sauce and homegrown Vietnamese coriander - the additions doing little beyond persuading me to finish the meal and close the book on this challenge.
While London is home to an amazing range of edibles, the week showed me that experience, a decent level of culinary skill and some seasonal planning would make all the difference. For a hobbyist like me foraging is fun, rather than being a viable alternative to shopping - at least for anything other than mushrooms and three-cornered leak.