After almost a year of procrastinating, something at which I always excel, I decided it was time to awaken my inner forager, get back to the earth, hug trees in an atavistic resurgent throwback to our collective hunter gatherer past and head out to the outskirts of London to pick blackberries with the Willesden Harvesters.
It was an early Sunday morning start, taking the tube from Willesden Green to Stanmore, at the northern end of the Jubilee line, to meet fellow foragers and then a short walk to Stanmore Country Park through the woods, past the bird and bat boxes and up to a rise where the blackberry bushes were abundant with plump, ripe fruit. Greeted by the moist earthy smell of the morning dew and feeling the warming summer sun on my neck and enjoying the panoramic view of London in the distance.
As a child growing up in semi-rural Hampshire every Sunday morning I would walk with my father a couple of miles to the nearest newsagent to buy the Sunday papers. On the way back we would walk through a verdant field, passing a group of farmers shooting clay pigeons. In the next field, when in season, we would stop to gather a few big field mushrooms into some brown paper bags and then return up Drift Road, a hill that so steep it felt almost vertical to an 8 year old and gave me recurring nightmares of struggling to climb the impossible gradient.
Reaching home he would chop them up and fry them in butter for breakfast with bacon along with fresh laid eggs from our own chickens. My Mum too was a keen forager; she would ferment anything she could find into homemade wine. She would pick rose hips and honeysuckle from the lower border with the farmer’s field along with wild strawberries and raspberries that grew all around the surrounding hedgerows. My own gamine foraging involved liberating sweetcorn from the farm across the road. My sister and I would make dens and spend afternoons reading Malory Towers and Famous Five novels respectively during the long summer holidays.
I’d been aware of the Willesden Harvesters excellent work for a while, they gather apples, plums, pears, grapes and more in Brent from public parks, private gardens and anywhere else that would otherwise go to waste. They make juice, jams and chutney and distribute the surplus to local community groups and food banks. As part of the Transition Town Kensal to Kilburn group they aim to make real, practical changes to their neighbourhood, creating a greener, more pleasant place to live by connecting with neighbours, sharing skills and building a sustainable community.
There were plenty of berries for everyone stretching out across the scrub land. Our forage leader, Sally Ibbotson cheerfully advised us not to pick anything below waist height which may have been soiled by dogs or humans. Sturdy boots, long sleeves and trousers were essential to prevent bramble pricks and nettle stings.Sandra Whitehouse, a horticultural botanist was able to identify the many plant species growing near the blackberries, and was on hand with dock leaves to instantly ease the pain of stings from the ubiquitous nettle stings for those with inappropriate clothing.
I had a fabulous afternoon; I didn’t weigh my haul, but I must have come away with almost 5 kilos of ripe berries, being tall with long arms certainly helped to gather those others couldn’t reach. One thing I quickly learned is to process your blackberries as soon as you are back home, especially if you have a lot, as they start to soften as soon as they are picked and the pressure of a heavy harvest can crush those at the bottom. The evening was spent rinsing, drying and then bagging in small batches to put in the freezer for later use.
So far I’ve made Blackberry milkshake, blackberry sorbet, Eton mess and still have enough left over for some jam and a blackberry coulis to top my vanilla panna cotta.
There was something deeply satisfying about eating food you have gathered from the wild. It was sustainable, social, reconnecting with the countryside from our daily life in the urban sprawl.
Willesden Harvesters are part of Transition Town Kensal to Kilburn group. Visit their website and sign up for their email newsletter for more information about forthcoming foraging and jam making classes. If you know of any potential foraging sites in NW London please do let them know.