Where the wild food is

Why foodies are getting excited about foraging

Standing in the howling wind on the beach at Lyme Regis, looking at a nondescript clump of greenery, I realise I would never have cut it as a hunter-gatherer.

Aside from a few forays into pick-your-own, I've never been in the position of having to find my own dinner. And luckily that isn't the case here - instead, I'm being shown the fundamentals of foraging by Mark Hix, of the oyster and chop houses, who is bounding round the Jurassic Coast plucking things from the ground, followed by a comet-tail of soggy but inquistive food journalists.

The British seashore is a surprisingly fertile place: here was a clump of sea-kale, over there were the tender leaves of sea purslane, perfect with lobster. Sea rocket, sea peas and sea aster - the naming conventions leave a little to be desired - are also relatively easy to find. Perhaps the jewel in the forager's crown is sea-buckthorn, which the Cornish chef Nathan Outlaw used in a meringue in last year's Great British Menu. These vibrant orange berries grow all around our island, particularly in Sussex, where they have been planted to ward off coastal erosion.

Bucking the trend

Their citrus bitterness is an acquired taste, but one way to get the hang of it is a sea-buckthorn hot toddy: strip the berries off the thorny branches by throwing them in the freezer, then bang them on a hard surface. Blitz them in a blender, sieve, then add an equal quantity of sugar, some lemon juice and cloves, a dash of honey, a good slug of whisky (we used Talisker, a nicely smoky single malt from the Isle of Skye) and enough hot water to assuage your conscience about the alcohol content.

If you're more virtuous, sea-buckthorn juice can fill in for lemon in any recipe: 10ml of juice for each lemon. "It's especially good in ice creams, jellies and sorbets," says Outlaw, adding ominously: "The juice smells strange but this goes away once it's cooled."

Foraging is now such a trend that a web search for courses turns up dozens of results, costing from £20 to the low hundreds. There's also a how-to book called The Thrifty Forager by Alys Fowler. When I call her, she sounds a note of caution about getting stuck in at the seaside. "It's largely protected and it's a sensitive area," she says. "You can overpick areas like that." Luckily, Fowler says that urban foraging is just as satisfying and less legally problematic (because cities have more public land, whereas most of the countryside is privately owned and it's harder to seek permission to gather food there). "This autumn I found an almond tree in the centre of Birmingham," she says. "And everyone is near a free apple tree - every time someone throws away a pip and it lands in a favourable place, there's one." Even in the dead of winter, there's food out there - nettles and winter greens.

That said, there are hazards. Two pieces of rock samphire from opposite ends of the beach tasted very different, making me suspect that one had been spritzed with eau de chien. Perhaps you're better off buying that in Waitrose, which stocks it in summer.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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