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Nature for Nerds

Hungry hedgerow hacks for city slickers.

Summer 2023

Been foraging for ages

If you're a programmer like me, chances are you live in a city. Chances are you may even live in an apartment and thus lack a garden. And, chances are that you too, like me, sometimes feel a yearning for mother nature and her bounties. But you're used to urban life. Your current life situation doesn't allow for moving to the countryside and start rearing chickens. Perhaps you, like me, don't even have a particular interest in gardening but would rather spend much of your spare time in front of an old Amiga.

I live in a small town close to both forests, agriculture and the sea, but if I want to get really close to nature, I might just as well stay in the city and go for a brisk walk. Nature is everywhere; we've just spent immense resources at keeping it out of our city centers proper. In fact, when it comes to edible nature, urban areas are often much more accommodating than actual wilderness. Keep your eyes peeled and stick to the city outskirts, parks, suburban idylls and derelict industrial areas and I dare promise you'll soon discover something you can eat.

I'm of course not talking about robbing someone's garden, but about what can be found on patches of public land: remnants of orchards and gardens, feral fugitives from allotments and produce shops, and of course wild plants that thrive in close proximity to us humans and our pets.

Foraging is a wonderful activity. When your life doesn't depend on it, it's like a low effort, high return cheat mode for spicing up your pantry. It fills a simple walk with new purpose, it takes you to new parts of town, it's free cardio and when you do find something delicious, it feels like you've fooled the system: Food! For free!

Here's a seasonal guide for my city, which should be broadly applicable to large parts of the northern hemisphere.

Spring

Spring is the time of delicate greens. Plenty of what most gardeners consider weeds are perfectly edible, such as dandelion leaves and stinging nettles. Raw nettle leaves are best picked and handled wearing rubber gloves, carried in a plastic bag and must be boiled before consumption. Use them in any recipe that calls for spinach.

Ramson is not as common, but easy to spot - or rather, smell. If you walk by a patch of green in an area shaded by trees and you suddenly smell something like garlic, chives or leek, you've found ramson. Don't pull up the bulbs, or there won't be any ramson next year. Just nip the leaves off where the stem starts. They taste a lot like their scent, like a mix between chives and garlic. Ramson, too, can be used like spinach, or in a pesto or salad. The flavour is delicate and dulls with cooking, but it can be eaten raw. Save a few leaves to chop up and sprinkle over your finished dish to bring it back to life, or use them to garnish any dish that would go well with garlic.

Beech trees - at least European beech - have edible leaves. Pick them early, when they're bright green, soft and pliable. The flavour is extremely delicate: mild but refreshing, somewhat sweet and sometimes just a little bit tangy. Eat them raw in a salad.

Elder flowers make for great tasting drinks, but even more readily accessible are violets with their distinct flavor, eaten raw or candied in desserts. Simplest of all are lilacs: just pick a single little flower, place it between your lips and suck gently, then spit the flower out. The nectar is sweet and aromatic. It's like inhaling springtime.

Summer

Summer time is berry time. A lot of shrubs and trees planted by municipalities these days aren't chosen for being edible but rather for being easy to manage, and many of them are poisonous to varying degrees. Stick to the safe bets. In my current city I've so far found cherries, blackberries, raspberries and wild strawberries. In other (and much bigger) cities I've also found mulberry, sea buckthorn, redcurrants and blueberries.

I've also found various herbs. These have usually escaped from old kitchen gardens. Keep your eyes open! One way to test a plant for herbaliciousness is to rub its leaves between your fingers and then smell your hand. If it smells exactly like oregano, thyme, spearmint or rosemary, well, then it probably is.

I wouldn't recommend going after mushrooms unless you're absolutely, one hundred percent certain of what you're doing.

Autumn

Late summer and early autumn is a time of plenty. Berries can still be found, perhaps even some temporally confused nettles. And, of course, orchard fruits and nuts. I've so far found plums, pears, apples, edible chestnut, walnut and hazel trees. Rose hip and rowan are prevalent in many urban areas. While delicious, they take a bit too much preparing for my taste. Beechnuts, on the other hand, are good for out of hand eating, at least those of the European variety. Just don't gorge yourself, because too many can you give you a tummy ache.

Winter

There's of course not much edible action going on during winter, but I have found sloe, which is best picked after the first frost. Winter is also a good time to scout for orchard trees if you learn to identify them.

Super simple recipes

These recipes are more like blueprints and have no fixed quantities. They work well with even the most modest of foraging harvests.

Beechnuts + Apples: Peel, seed and dice the apples. Peel and crush the beechnuts - they have both a hard outer shell and a slightly softer inner shell; remove both. Heat the apples in a little bit of water and when they start going soft, mash them. Add cinnamon and crushed beech nuts. Sugar to taste. Serve hot over vanilla ice cream or let cool and stir into yoghurt.

Ramson: Wash and then finely chop raw ramson. Stir into soft butter alone or with other herbs: parsley is always a favourite. Salt and pepper to taste. Let sit in the fridge and serve on steaks, grilled fish or toasted bread.

Small cherries: There are many different varieties of cherries, some of which are very small and very sweet. These aren't as good for out of hand eating as the large, fleshy varieties since they're mostly pit. Instead, place them in a saucepan along with just a little bit of water. Boil for a few minutes, then pass through first a coarse and then a fine sieve: magic pit removal! Pour back into saucepan and bring to the boil again. Blend with a stick blender if needed. Add sugar to taste. The resulting jam is delicious on yoghurt and ice cream. (Be mindful of the cherry variety and be careful with the pits: consuming too much cherry pit can lead to cyanide poisoning).

Caveat and disclaimer

Eating straight from nature's larder always comes with some amount of risk: use your eyes, nose and common sense and you'll be fine for the most part. (By common sense I mean things like, well, maybe don't pick nettles outside an old lead smelter and maybe don't eat raw berries if you know there's a rampant intestinal parasite pandemic among dogs in your area.)

Keeping a pocket knife about your person is recommended. For example, I usually split and inspect plums before eating them, to avoid eating harmless but not very delicious insect larvae. A small folded plastic bag is also handy to always keep in your jacket pocket.

And of course, be sure to keep an eye on the legality of picking plants and fruit where you live.

I'm not saying you'll find all of what I've described above in your particular city. Make sure to consult books and other web sites relevant to your geography, especially to avoid confusing edible plants with less edible varieties. Again, I dare promise you're going to find something eventually.

Good luck and happy hedgerow hacking!