A lot of the green pledges made by Bow Arts staff this week are about living more sustainably – and a big part of that is how we eat. Not just what our food comes in – plastic, plastic, plastic – but where our food comes from and the expectation of everything being available all year round.
Our awareness of seasonal produce and where different fruit, vegetables and leaves are sourced is fast disappearing as generations are no longer taught how to ‘use the land’. But how to use the land in the city? Local foragers Martin and David came to Bow Arts to show us.
Taking us on a taste tour of preserves made from produce gathered in barely a mile radius from our offices, we began by trying the fruits of last season’s labour. Wild cherry jam from a tree on Victoria Park Road and Mare Street – tip, you can pick cherries before they ripen to make jam, that way you beat the squirrels and the birds! – then Membrillo (made using quinces from Wells Street Common) for cheese boards, followed by crab apple, rosehip, damson and mulberry. Hardly any of us had heard of medlars (it’s not even in MS Word’s dictionary) that make a delicious jelly. Once colloquially coined a ‘cats arse’ – they’re funny, twisted looking things – these are an age-old English fruit, with trees in Wells Street Common and on the Greenway. From gelatinous jellies we tried sweet chestnuts, which can be boiled then frozen, from Victoria Park, and hazelnuts from local hedgerows. Having frequently bought pricey vacuum-packed chestnuts for Christmas stuffing from Waitrose, I’ll be heading to the Park this year.
Elated on sugar and the excitement and discovery of so much local fruit – much of which isn’t even stocked in shops – we walked across the eye-sore of Bow roundabout to the River Lea, heading towards Hackney Wick. Almost immediately – literally creeping through the barriers to the A12 – we found Martin’s favourite canal-loving leaf, rocket. Small baby leaves whose determination (considering last week’s inches of snow) leave us in no doubt of his tales of tonnes of the stuff across the Lea’s banks. Wild rocket is hardy stuff and considering most of us buy at least a bag a week, only to throw away half the bag of congealed leaves the week following, it’s worth coming to find. Yes, you need to wash it – at least two or three times – but the feel-good walk of ten minutes to ‘forage for lunch’ (that also gets you out the office at lunchtime) is well worth it.
Pointing out the knotted tangles of elderflower – there is so much on the canal, not just for cordial Martin tells us, make jelly or put a handful in crumbles for a heady sweetness – we continue down the river, in search of the only plant in season this time of year. CHIVES. A meadow of chives we’re promised and sure enough, the banks of the Greenway (just where it crosses the River) are thriving with the stuff. Peering through railings, from afar what looks like grass, is nothing but peppery spikes.
We had a lot of fun foraging and, crucially, learnt a lot. Not just about what easily grows on our doorstep – and can be used instead of buying produce in bags of non-recyclable plastic – but about how to use what we can find. Recipes our Grandmas reminisce about – nettle soup, elderflower wine, quince jelly – and jams that are incomparable to supermarket sugar-filled jars. Sustainability is a lot to do with awareness – we can’t forage everything, but even thinking and talking about where our food has grown and how far it’s (unnecessarily?) travelled encourages change. As a growing population of health-driven rabbits – chomping on leaves with every meal – it’s a much better plan to pick or grown your own; halving waste and eating salad so fresh it grew with today’s sun.