Saturday, August 23, 2008

Tale of an Urban Forager


Something strange is afoot;quite literally. Due to the temporary closure of my local underground station, my walk home now takes me down some of the poshest streets in London. These are wide tree-lined avenues with huge nineteenth century mansions that are in a perpetual state of renewal. Every day a new skip is parked up against the pavement to receive the contents of someone's last-season kitchen or bathroom. This is the equivalent of plastic surgery for houses. Sometimes I rescue items from the skips. Occasionally the owner, standing proud in her spanking new designer room looks out and sees me and smiles benignly. I shuffle off with a plank of salvaged skirting board under my arm.
The other day there was trouble in Luxury Avenue.
"I cannot believe it. I have rung the council and they are not prepared to do ANYTHING about this. It's completely disgusting. My car is covered in mess. And it makes a mockery of the new paving stones", ranted Burberry lady to a tweed-suited man.
"I blame the pigeons", he said.
I stopped to see what they were complaining about. Burberry Lady and Tweed-suited man were peering at the pavement, which was covered in huge purple splats. The car roofs were also decorated with deep bluish-purple splashes. I followed the splats along the road, where they intensified at the end, reaching a crescendo of colour. I looked up. Above me was an ancient Mulberry tree, crashing through an old wall, leaning over the pavement. Ripe berries were scattered everywhere. I rushed home.
"Alex,I need your help - go and get the step ladder from the cellar."
I went into the kitchen to get plastic containers, baskets and put on an apron.
"Dad, she's lost it again," muttered Alex.
"What are you doing now? You have only just got home",said Chris. Having watched me spend the best part of two years obsess about strange vegetables,he had seen this all before.
"There are tons of mulberries and it's a complete waste. So I'm going to pick them."
I left, with my baskets and ladder. The good thing about living in London is that no one really notices if you are strange. Alex came with me,for the entertainment,if nothing else. We crossed over four lanes of traffic and found the tree which marks the boundary between Luxury Avenue and Scruffy Street. I knocked on the door of the house, ringing all the bell buttons, which were hanging by a wire. A young man opened the door, bending his head round. He appeared to be naked.
"Can I pick your Mulberries please?"
"What?", said Naked man, who I thought was Spanish.
"You have a Mulberry tree round the back and if you aren't using the fruit, would you mind if I did?"
Alex by now is so embarrassed she has crept out of sight.
Naked man is confused. So I mime the action of eating a berry and point to the tree down the street.
"Oh fruit - no problem. You must have fruit, yes."
So we set up our ladder. Curtains twitched as we piled up mulberries in their containers.
"Are you from the council?", said one passer-by.
"No I just like mulberries."
We went home clutching our ladder and full containers with purple-stained hands.
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Please excuse our month-long absence from the blog but getting back into the swing of work and school has been all-consuming. We think The Great Big Veg Challenge might go a bit fruity. Freddie's refusal to eat yoghurt with bits makes me think that fruit could be our next big challenge. What do you think?


  1. Well I have never had a fruit may just be the next big frontier. Think of all the exotic fruits out there...if only people could send you varieties from all over the world.

  2. An idea that's catching on slowly is one of urban food maps - where food resources that are available to urban foragers are shown on the internet. It's mostly fruits that's growing on public land, but there's no reason that landowners who have fruiting trees (do they even know???) but don't want the hassle of collecting the fruit could add them to the list.

  3. Fruit sounds like a super idea!! i got a list off wiki once and ticked off all the fruits i had tried, probably needs updating but i blogged it.

    i think the post previous to that is a veg one too.

    i made a lovely "A" recipe - Apple and Apricot muffins i made them yesterday!

  4. Wow, great! I've never had mulberries...

    Thanks for visiting my blog and for leaving a comment!



  5. Good to see you back Charlotte, another very funny story too. The best bit for me was, 'You must have fruit, yes.'

    I'm well thanks, now that the week from hell has passed. How has the book been going?

    David x

  6. Great story!

    A bank near my aunt's house used blueberry bushes in its landscaping, and no one picked them. We used to go early in the morning before the bank opened to "make a withdrawl."

  7. Yes please DO FRUIT! Such a great story Charlotte. It would make great TV.

  8. Amanda,
    Fruit would be fun I think - and there is so much you can do that is different. It would be good to learn jam-making skills as well!

    Nowheymamma - Great idea. I wish we could pick blueberries for free here they are so expensive to buy.

    David Hall - Lovely to see your beautiful daughter getting older in your profile shot! Book is going well I think. We are talking at the Abergavenny Food Festival next weekend!

    Rosa's Yummy Yums - now theres a great name! Mulberries taste really different to other soft fruit - they are quite grown up in taste, not too sweet and quite perfumed, a bit like red wine in a way. hard to describe.

    Jenny - thakn you for that link. I will look forward to reading it all.

    Muppet - I love the idea of a map for urban foragers. that makses me think....London could be mapped in a whole new light!

    Bellini V - Mulberries. you must try them - can you get them where you live? They have a unique taste.

  9. Fruit sounds like a great way to go! I've never had mulberries. Having just moved back into Manchester, I'm missing all the forraging opportunities I had when I live in a small town in Yorkshire.

  10. Great Big Veg Challenge9:05 AM

    Yeh - but you have to adopt a new approach back in Manchester. You think there arent foraging opportunities but you are wrong ... its just well hidden.

  11. Fruit is a fab idea! Get yourselves a copy of the Jane Grigson Fruit Book for starters - it's a gold mine of fruity info and a culinary classic!

    Mulberries are gorgeous - I know the location of a venerable tree in Ely but haven't checked it out for years - hope someone is enjoying the harvest (more likely the fruit is splatting on the cars parked below!) There is also a beautiful ancient Mulberry tree in the garden of Gainsborough's House in Sudbury.

    Bring back love for the fruit trees of England!!!!

    Celia :)

  12. Welcome back! Great to see you are back in action.
    What did you do with the mulberries - all that juice, and those stained hands, evoke great memories of mulberry jam!
    How big are the school pumpkins - are any ready for picking yet, or are you waiting for Halloween?

  13. A friend (in his 30s) just told me today that he doesn't like any fruit - not a single one. I was in shock!! He could use your challenge!

  14. Great Big Veg Challenge9:49 AM

    No fruit at all? Thats bonkers. You could trick him and ask if eats tomatoes...

    Top Veg - they were all frozen whilst I made up my mind. They are such a find I didnt want to squander them at all. Am going in to check the pumpkins this afternoon! Will report back

  15. Love the story about the mulberries. My mother used to stop on the side of the road in WASHINGTON DC and the surrounding areas to pick elderberries (which are fantastic). They grow similar to blackberries in that they are weed like in growth capabilities and bramble bush in actual look. She always had a bandana, long sleeved shirt, gloves and a basket in the car just in case.

    I would love to see what you do with fruit as it seems like my son will eat any and all fruits.

  16. Great Big Veg Challenge8:41 AM

    I have been staring at some elderberries three gardens away across from my house. But its all flats so I don't know who owns them - if indeed anyone knowsa bout them....very frustrating.

  17. Thanks for another super blog Charlotte. Ohhhh an A-Z of fruit... That would be quite interesting. Mulberries are lovely!

  18. An A to Zed of fruit would be fantastic, and I wish there had been video of that interaction, especially the part with the Burberry lady.

    Humm. Burberry. Is there actually such a fruit as a burberry? It's a bit too good to be true, Burberry having trouble with the mulberries...

  19. Lee Ann -
    I know - the Burberry lady was box office material. There should be a burberry fruit...hadnt thought of that.

    Pat you are welcome. I have to get into fruit mode - its very different to vegetables

  20. You should definitely do a Fruit Challenge! I love your blog. It reminds me of...well, me! :)

  21. Anonymous12:17 PM

    There's a foraging map of wild foods available in Bristol on the net somewhere.

    Anyway, we're trying to compile a London Foraging resource,

    We need recipes, ideas and all sorts so if anyone fancies contributing, that would be great!

  22. A plea from the heart.

    My teenage daughter simply doesn't like most food. I think she has very sensitive tastebuds so most flavours are unpleasant for her and she complains that things are highly spiced when we can only just taste anything. She will not touch tomatoes or mushrooms. She dislikes spices, herbs, curry powder, onions, most vegetables, salty food and strong cheese.

    We have tried leaving her to find food she liked - she ended up eating fats, sugar and carbohydrate. We tried getting her to cook. She will cook happily, but she won't eat what she's cooked.

    We now insist that she eats what we eat, but it's dificult - she hasn't grown to like food by repetition. Lunchboxes are a nightmare - but given money to buy lunch she buys chips and chocolate.

    Do you have any suggestions?

  23. Charlotte at Great Big Veg12:58 PM

    This must be really hard for you - its so difficult to know how to help a child to change - especially when they are
    older and in their teenage years.
    You should, for fun, if nothing else, start off by trying the supertasters test - just need some blue food colouring and a little paper and a cotton swab and a tongue - you count the papillae - here is the test.

    Maybe she is a supertaster - which makes her more sensitive to flavours that others can't detect. On the other hand if she isnt - then this test will give you a starting block to help her to move on really slowly and really gently...change takes a long time and if she has built up a kind of fear of different tastes and textures it will take a time and a lot of patience to erode some of that.

    Start off by making a list together of all the vegetables she does like - and all the ones she says she hates. Then get her to chose some new vegetables that she might like to try. The thing to remember is that it is fine to hate some foods - but you can't ban an entire food group.
    Are there any spices or flavourings that she enjoys - garlic? Would she maybe like to try a mild leek and potato soup - it is smooth and based on potato which is a very mild tasting vegetable, the leeks are pureed within the soup so there are no upsetting textures and then just work from there - build on what she likes, what she already enjoys - in a sense build on the positive.

    I dont think all children do learn to like things by simply repeatedly eating them - but what worked with my son was trying the same food in very different ways. And building on the very few things he liked combining it with new textures new tastes, very slowly.
    Would you tell me what she does like so I can suggest some starting blocks?

  24. Anonymous9:43 PM

    I would love you to do a book on fruit.for me and my family fruit is the problem.
    my family loves veg but strangely are not too keen on fruit


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