This was the year I first ate stinging nettles. A clump of them, pulled from a park in west London and wilted in stock from the weekend’s roast chicken. Subtler and sweeter than rocket, more delicate than chewy-chewy cabbage, more flavoursome, almost white-winey, than lettuce, ‘stingers’ really are the new kale.
John Rensten, an ‘urban forager’ and author of The Edible City: A Year of Wild Food – my food book of 2016 – does for nettles, knotweed, and wild garlic what Gwyneth Paltrow has done for kale smoothies. The nettles he finds in the parks and commons of London go into crisp tempura batter or leek and parmesan gnocchi.
Tall, lean as a samphire frond, and brown as a hazelnut, Rensten is an excellent advert for spending as much time as you can steal from city life outdoors. He is nearly 50, but looks 35. We should all eat more dandelions.
Evangelical as he is about stingers, cow parsley, burdock and ribwort plantain, he’s no joyless ascetic. Not for him vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, booze-free virtue. Wild garlic goes into a caramelised onion and goat’s cheese tart; nettles (when you blanch them they lose their sting) into a sumac and garlic risotto; winter cress into a soup spiced with chorizo; black and white mulberries into a double-cream Eton Mess; and sweet chestnuts into a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
If you’re short of ideas about what to do with a glut, Rensten has the answer: drink it. He has recipes for lime blossom champagne, nettle beer, mugwort and ox-eye daisy mead, and a nocino – a traditional Italian liqueur made with under-ripe walnuts, cinnamon, cloves and vanilla.
When I met Rensten in Holland Park in late September, he offered me a thimbleful of beech-leaf ‘noyau’, a twist on the French crème de noyau made with apricot kernels, from a hipflask, and then beech-leaf-and-chilli vodka. I was very nearly out cold in the flowerbeds. The ingredients may be natural, but that doesn’t mean they’re not potent.
Rensten started foraging twenty years ago. Having grown up in the country and moved to London, he found himself feeling cooped up and stifled. Impressed when a girlfriend was able to distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous mushrooms, he taught himself the basics of foraging and plant identification.
For a time he ran a gastro pub in London’s Clerkenwell – very foodie, very hipster – adding foraged ingredients – edible mushrooms, sorrel, seabeet, elderberries, borrage, mallow and rosehips – to the menu.
The book is an ode, not just to the joys of meadowsweet and porcini mushrooms, but to getting out into nature, wherever you can find it in a concrete and glass city. Foraging instead of mindfulness. Plum-scrumping as an anti-depressant.
Under Rensten’s guidance, I filled my bag with Turkish hazelnuts, blackberries, bay leaves (for drying and simmering with lentils) and nettles. (Wear gloves.)
Rensten has a warning, though, for anyone over-excited about raiding their local park’s larder: ‘nature isn’t a supermarket.’ You cannot turn up and expect wild plums to drop into your lap in January.
January is a surprisingly sweet month, purple with berries. This is also the time for winter greens: cow parsley, yarrow, white nettle, mallow and garlic mustard to be stirred into soups and risottos or whizzed into juices to defeat winter colds.
The Edible City is lyrically written, beautifully illustrated by Gwen Burns, and has made me look at parks and heaths and garden squares with newly curious, and hungry, eyes.