As a person who loves cooking and exploring new ingredients, I'm a little ashamed to admit that this city girl can’t tell her daylilly from her damsons or her meadowsweet from her mugwort. (Apparently that’s a plant and not the name of Harry Potter’s school!) Preferring to entrust local farmers markets with sourcing my fresh herbs and interesting greens, I was totally unaware of the plentiful edible plants waiting to be plucked and cooked in many urban areas around Amsterdam.
Curious to know more, I asked Lynn Shore — teacher, permaculturist and master of public heath, otherwise known as the Urban Herbologist — to take me foraging around Amsterdam. The plan was to harvest whatever was on offer that day and then put our ingredients to good use back in the kitchen.
The age-old tradition of foraging for food fell away after the introduction of modern agriculture but there seems to be a revival happening. Could it be down to the rising cost of food? Disillusion with pre-packaged supermarket products? More time connecting with the great outdoors? Or simply that all the trendy restaurants seem to be at it? Whatever the reason foraging seems to be the new culinary cool for the home cook.
They say there is no such thing as a free lunch, but Urban Herbologist Lynn Shore took us on one of her foraging tours around a central Amsterdam park to show us that there is a wealth of wild and edible plants that can provide exactly that! Our eyes have been opened to the abundance of edible ingredients that are ripe for picking and freely available in parks and public spaces.
Lynn is a teacher, permaculturist and master of public heath but these days she is better known as the Urban Herbologist and can be found foraging for herbs on a daily basis in parks and public areas of Amsterdam. Her mission is to get people to re-establish a connection with their environment and learn the skills and knowledge to safely identify, grow and make use of the many local, delicious and nutritious plants that are readily available. Lynn takes groups on guided foraging tours in Amsterdam, throughout the year.
We’d not taken more than twenty steps on our walking tour before Lynn’s well-trained eye fell on a variety of edible treats. Passersby don't look twice as we clip a few stems of 'common' plantain (the common kind is more like a grass rather than a banana), mugwort and meadowsweet. We stop to taste some fresh and crunchy daylilies and experienced the lemon sherbet like taste of enchanters nightshade when the hairs of the flowers are licked. Other finds included Himalayan balsam and wild chicory. Feeling like we’ve uncovered some ancient secret of self-sufficiency, we're amazed at the abundance at which all of these plants are growing and can't help feeling we should have known this secret a long time ago!
Back at home, Lynn shows us the rosemary, sage, rue, wormwood and lavender
she grows in the 'pavement garden' outside her house before taking us through to the living room which is often used as a drying room for her many herbal finds, and then finally the kitchen and dining area where she points out some of the 30 different herb species that she manages to grow in pots at home.
We made a start in the kitchen by cleaning and chopping our harvest whilst sipping some home-made mead made with honey and the flowering tops of meadowsweet. After months of fermenting it had reached a nice maturity and was perfect to drink. Lynn suggests that those new to foraging should start by adding their foraged harvest to simple dishes such as rice, which provides a good canvas for experimenting with new flavours. We eat ours with added plantain seeds and mugwort and wash it down with a refreshing nettle infused water.
Afterwards we seek inspiration for future dishes by flicking through Hedgerow Cookery by Glennie Kindred and enjoy a cup of mugwort tea.
An educational afternoon of urban herbology has left us fascinated with the versatility of these plants for the home cook, the interesting and unique flavours, the impressive nutritional content and the historical significance of foraged foods. We leave with a full belly, some new herbs to add to our repertoire and the curiosity to go out and find our own sites to forage from.
Lynn's 4 Foraging Rules
1. Be Accurate. Know the plant, the area, poisonous look-a-likes, local endangered species and laws. Learn all you can and always be 100% certain of the plants you harvest. If in doubt, don’t pick.
2. Keep it Light. Overharvesting leads to rarity and extinction. Take only a little from each plant and leave plenty. Don’t harvest wild roots as this destroys the plants and roots generally harbor more toxins than other parts.
3.Clean Harvest. Forage in clean areas as many plants accumulate heavy metals and other pollutants. Bug free environments, manicured areas, pavement cracks, power lines, busy roadsides and railways are often heavily polluted sites. Leave no trace and improve the area. Clean your harvest well and pick above dog height when possible!
4. Safe Harvest. Test anything that is new to you in very small quantities before consuming as part of a meal. Watch out for any signs that your body reacts badly to the plant.