Finding a Feast with the Urban Foraging Society

Words by
Charlotte McManus
Photography by
Steven Joyce

4th January 2016

A new initiative set up by London wild food restaurateurs Oliver and Richard Gladwin shows how to scavenge natural, tasty ingredients from city environments

Within a minute of leaving his HQ in south-west London, Oliver Gladwin has paused to point out something growing in a doorway. Looking at a crack in the flagstones, I only spy weeds and wonder if I’ve missed something. After all, we are standing next to a busy road with lorries roaring behind us. “Can you see those little purple flowers? They’re wild violets. You can eat the leaves sautéed and the flowers have this really sweet perfume,” Gladwin tells me, explaining that he often serves them pickled with quail’s eggs because he likes the way they make the whites of the eggs go purple.

I’m on a nature walk, spending the morning urban-foraging in SW8 with two of the three Gladwin brothers behind the London restaurants The Shed in Notting Hill and Rabbit in Chelsea. Oliver is the chef and Richard handles operations while Gregory runs the farm in Sussex from where the restaurants source their meat.

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Oliver and Richard Gladwin foraging in the woods
Oliver and Richard Gladwin foraging in the woods

Oliver and Richard Gladwin foraging in the woods

While foraged ingredients make a chunky slice of their wild food menus, the pair are aware that “foraged” has become a much-abused restaurant buzzword. As a result, they have set up the Urban Foraging Society to show town dwellers that city foraging needn’t mean herbs covered in dirt and dog mess. Indeed, Oliver is adamant that there is edible treasure beyond the grit. “It’s about picking things you trust. As with anything as a chef, if you trust the quality of the ingredients, you’ll be fine. In this case [he points to the violets], I don’t trust that or what’s happened to it. We’ll find more in the park.”

Oliver and Richard source ingredients such as gorse flowers and cow parsley
Oliver and Richard source ingredients such as gorse flowers and cow parsley

Oliver and Richard source ingredients such as gorse flowers and cow parsley

There are green-fingered chefs aplenty in the capital. Chef Matthew Young of Ellory in London Fields often gathers wood sorrel and wild garlic to go with raw fish and lamb dishes, while Claude Compton of Claude’s Kitchen in Fulham likes gathering elderflowers for making jelly. Then there is Jonathan Cook, also known as Jon the Poacher, who sources burdock and even kiwi fruit in Hackney for restaurants across the borough.

Oliver and Richard Gladwin foraging in the woods
Oliver and Richard Gladwin foraging in the woods

Oliver and Richard Gladwin foraging in the woods

Oliver was formerly the head trainer at River Cottage, where sustainability is key. “It is such a big group of very skilled contributors. Everyone benefits from each other — that is what is so special about it,” he says. “People like John Wright, who knows so much about wild foraging, has been a great inspiration, and a friend, to me.”

We step inside the quiet enclave of Battersea Park. Oliver beckons me over. “This is chickweed, probably the most abundant herb. It grows all year round and has pretty, white flowers,” he says. “In the winter, if we can’t get cultivated rocket or Sussex greens on the menu because they don’t grow, we use chickweed. It is fantastic because it gives freshness to the dishes, while still being in season in Britain.” Next, he identifies mallow, the roots of which “hold gelatinous value” if ground into a powder, then cow’s parsley, which is “good for decorating plates”, but also easily confused with the poisonous hemlock plant; it would be vital, were I to return here, to check whatever I found with an expert.

For wild food menus, it's about picking things that you trust. As with any chef, if you trust the quality of the ingredients, you'll be fine

Gathering forsynthia, gorse and blackcurrant flowers
Gathering forsynthia, gorse and blackcurrant flowers

Gathering forsynthia, gorse and blackcurrant flowers

Heading onwards, we find pine, which can be used to make oils; yellow gorse flowers used by Oliver to make emulsions; elderflower, for cordials; and yellow celandine flowers, which are “so beautiful and great for garnishing salads”. Up on a mound, the brothers pick two punnets-worth of a tall, green plant with tiny, yellow flowers called Alexanders (known as Roman celery for its celery-like crunch and flavour) to cook later at Rabbit.

I squirm when Oliver begins picking through a crowd of low-lying nettles — surely dog-mess heaven — but he insists it would be okay to wash and blanche the tips before eating them, or to add them to beef dumpling mixes to offset the fattiness. However, it is their sweet smell and natural digestive properties that Oliver likes most about nettles. “So many things we eat now from supermarkets have been cultivated to grow in great quantities,” he says, “whereas all these things — these weeds — are not cultivated, so they grow naturally and are full of nutrients and taste great.”

Forsynthia branches are used as decoration in the restaurant
Forsynthia branches are used as decoration in the restaurant

Forsynthia branches are used as decoration in the restaurant

For the Gladwins, who grew up with foodie parents on the Nutbourne vineyard in Sussex, picking things to eat has always been a part of life. For Richard, it started “with the first blackberry pick. Our dad was a caterer and when we were small he used to send us to the blackberry farm next door and have us pick their leaves for his garnishes,” he says. Their mum, meanwhile, is “very knowledgeable, especially on Latin names of plants”.

Despite foraging “becoming quite on-trend again”, Richard says most people rarely go out and do it. “I think our generation has really lost the language of nature and everything exists around that — it was partly why we set up the society.” The idea emerged in 2012, “when everyone at The Shed was getting really excited about foraging and we would bring in produce found while commuting back and forth from work. One day, someone came in with pears he’d jumped over a fence for. At that point, we realised we needed to tell people what they could actually bring in.”Since then, explains Richard, they have learned all about wild Britain, as well as followed the seasons, “in order to be 100% confident in what we pick and serve to people”.

I think our generation has really lost the language of nature and everything exists around that - it was partly why we set up the Urban Foraging Society

Indeed, there is a limit to what people can pick and, with bigger groups, Oliver makes it clear that it is “really a nature walk to make us aware of these plants and we aim to show people in London what is out there. For the restaurant, we do most of our picking on our own land — chefs are not allowed to forage for commercial gain,” he says. “You should never take more than what you need. People should think of it like picking daffodils for your home — you’d never want to take them all.

Creating a dish of peas and wild garlic broth and veal balls
Creating a dish of peas and wild garlic broth and veal balls

Creating a dish of peas and wild garlic broth and veal balls

The dish of peas and wild garlic broth and veal balls is delicately prepared
The dish of peas and wild garlic broth and veal balls is delicately prepared

The dish of peas and wild garlic broth and veal balls is delicately prepared

A dish of peas and wild garlic broth is garnished with pennywort leaves
A dish of peas and wild garlic broth is garnished with pennywort leaves

A dish of peas and wild garlic broth is garnished with pennywort leaves

“In London, the Royal Parks aren’t very generous with their foraging options, but I have the honour of cooking occasionally for Prince William, and when I told him once that the plants he’d eaten had come from one, he said, ‘Well, you carry on, sir!’ So, in a way, I have a royal seal of approval.”

The Gladwins maintain you can pick things from almost anywhere — all you need is a good pair of scissors. “There are loads of Alexanders growing by the river near Hammersmith Bridge and hundreds of sweet chestnuts in Hyde Park,” says Oliver. “In bigger spaces, such as Richmond Park, you don’t often see people picking things, but after a windy night they’ll get there early and fill their bags with sweet chestnuts.”

Tempura Alexanders served with a gorse flower emulsion
Tempura Alexanders served with a gorse flower emulsion

Tempura Alexanders served with a gorse flower emulsion

We end our walk at Rabbit, where I spot souvenirs from the morning’s bounty on the menu. There are snacks of rich confit rabbit decorated with tiny local flowers and a delicious side dish of braised, buttery Alexanders. Afterwards, I watch as Oliver makes a punchy broth of wild garlic with veal balls, adding pea purée and fresh wild-garlic oil, followed by tempura Alexanders with a gorse flower emulsion. They are a delight to eat.

It’s only when Oliver describes his menu for the upcoming staff party —two porchettas filled with wild garlic, served with market vegetables —that I see how easy it can be. “I’ll forage for herbs to make sauces with and we’ll have this amazing feast,” he says. “That’s the beauty of having it in your head simply because you trust the seasons and the countryside.”