A freezing winter, chilly spring and sweltering summer have brought us a bumper wild harvest. Mary Griffin goes foraging in the heart of suburbia to find food for free.
Many cooks set up their food schools among England’s green and pleasant pastures.
But Tom Baker took a different approach with Loaf, opening the enterprise slap bang in the middle of Stirchley high street.
This largely unremarkable south Birmingham suburb is fairly interchangable with any other across the Midlands. So if you can forage for your supper here, you can forage for your supper anywhere.
I’ve joined eight other curious students at Loaf’s Forage and Cook course to put Stirchley’s wares to the test.
Apparently the transformational seasons of spring and autumn are the forager’s favourite – the former bringing new herbs and salad leaves, while the latter brings a glut of fruits and nuts.
“We’re getting into a really bountiful season,” promises Tom, and after a few words of warning about the legalities and moralities of cutting and digging up plants in public places, he leads the class out of the bakery and across Pershore Road.
A two-minute walk along Hazelwell Road brings us to the green corridor of the Rea Valley Route and as soon as we step off the pavement Tom points out our first find – a hawthorn tree laden with red berries.
He explains how to recognise the tree from its leaf formation before describing how the leaves can be used to flesh out a salad and the berries (or haws) can be used in a hedgerow jelly as their high pectin content gives them natural gelatinous properties.
Next we find Sumac (the red conical flowers can be dried and sprinkled on a salad), wild cherries (Tom tells us where to look out for them around Birmingham), meadowsweet growing in the long grass (a little sprig can infuse tea or cream), horseradish (which we dig up a thumb-sized chunk of), nettles (Tom shows us which bits to pick and which to avoid) and vetch (with a peppery, rockety flavour).
We haven’t walked more than 200 feet from the road and already we have a potential feast.
I cycle along this greenway regularly and hadn’t spotted any of this stuff before tonight.
But now that my senses have been awakened I’m suddenly eyeing up every shrub, leaf and tree as a potential meal.
My classmate Halo Garrity, 30, of Moseley, is a food enthusiast who’s setting up her own gluten-free bakery.
She says: “I’m from South Africa originally and, you might not realise it, but in England you’re surrounded by greenery all the time.
“This is the greenest country I’ve ever been to – and I’ve travelled half the world – but we don’t eat any of it.”
With that in mind, Halo bought herself some foraging books hoping to make the most of her green surroundings.
“But there’s a huge difference between looking at it in a book and actually picking it up in your hand,” she says.
Tom felt the same way. After reading up on the basics he sought out expert guidance before building the nerve to go it alone.
“If you count blackberry picking as foraging then I first got started when I was a kid,” he says, “but I took it up more seriously about seven or eight years ago.
“I bought a book called Food For Free and used to carry it around on country walks.
“Initially I was really nervous about tasting stuff but I went on a weekend foraging course myself, which really built my confidence.
“We learned a lot and I realised I knew a lot already, but then it’s a steep learning curve when you start teaching because you’ve obviously really got to know your stuff.”
Fortunately for me and my classmates, he does.
He warns us about the carrot family, which contains hemlock and false parsley, two noxious ingredients we don’t want in our dinner, and tells us the stems of elderflowers contain cyanide.
Gardener Rob Walker, of West Heath, has come along with two pals after his girlfriend bought him the course for his 24th birthday.
The three are keen cooks and no strangers to messing about outdoors, scoring well on Tom’s “guess the plant” game.
We find yarrow (a good substitute for lavender or rosemary), dead nettles (no sting and you can suck the nectar out of the flowers), Himalayan balsam (a non-native invasive plant with tasty pink flowers), rowan (which makes a good jelly mixed with apples), wood avons (which can make dandelion and burdock if you infuse the root), rosehips (which make good syrup), as well as mint, sloes, elderberries and hazelnuts.
The empty bag Tom brought from the shop is now bulging with finds and at no point have we ventured further than 300 yards from the cookery school in Pershore Road.
The next task is to transform the harvest into dinner.
If you’re expecting a tasteless but worthy-looking nettle soup (as I was), think again.
Tom has planned a menu starting with nettle and horseradish pakora made with gram flour and garam masala, served with an apple riata made with wild apples, and a side serving of daal.
And that’s followed by Meadowsweet-infused wild fruit mess, combining blackberries, plums, raspberries, damsons and cherries, with whipped cream and wood aven shortbread on the side.
Inspired by the menu and hungry from their foraging the class, who are all discerning foodies and competent cooks, sets about the kitchen, each taking a different task before tucking into each other’s creations.
Chrissa Murrell, 30, has come along with her husband Stu, after buying the course for his birthday.
Chrissa, a New Zealander, has previously foraged for seafood in her homeland and the pair have made elderflower Champagne at home in Cofton Hackett.
She says: “We live right on the city boundary so there should be plenty for us to pick now that we can identify what’s what.
“Tonight has definitely broadened my horizons. I’m really surprised at how much there is to find in an urban environment.”
* LOAF’S evening foraging classes start when the clocks go forward in spring and run monthly until the clocks go back in autumn.
The final instalment will be held on October 3.
For more information about Loaf and other courses including bread, pasta, butchery and seafood, visit www.loafonline.co.uk