FORAGE WALK ONE
Saturday the 23th of June was the national day of architecture and the theme for 2012 was food and the city. The Utrecht Architecture Centre Aorta assembled an extensive program but I only joined the forage walk led by Edwin Flores. He is a well known wild food expert and educator who, amongst other things, supplies some of the finest restaurants in the country. Flores is well groomed guy in Bear Grylls chic and what you can only describe as a real character. His outgoing style, an incident with a participant that caused a sudden change in atmosphere, a run in with a group of drunks combined with a bad traffic decision that nearly had us all killed made for an expedition that was also action theatre.
From the meeting point we cycled to the nearby Julianapark where we spent one and a half hour looking at about 15 to 20 plants. Flores had never visited the park previously but this was no barrier to finding an abundant variety of plants to eat and this in itself illustrated the general point of the food and the city theme. Flores is obviously extremely knowledgeable and he delivered a high-density hands-on crash-course that introduced us to the richness of city nature. He told more than you could ever hope to remember, but I was also surprised by the number of participants who, with their writing pads out, turned out to be seasoned foragers already endowed with a repertoire of things to do with the blossom of a large-leaved linden.
Only afterwards did I notice how effective his educational style had been. While the list of uses for individual plants never fully registered in my memory I did pick up a good number of things to keep in mind about what, where and how to forage, from the need to avoid duck shit to hints on plant biology. Bits of information unobtrusively presented but together very helpful in setting you in the right direction to approach the challenges of wild foods. This may reflect my own concerns more than anything else as my own interest in foraging has less to do with recipes and more with foraging a way of knowing place and as a rationale of exploration. There was a lot of touching trees, feeling leaves, harvesting cress, tasting stalks and looking at the ground; an important part of the expedition was to get people over any non-touch inhibitions in regard to plant life.
The GPS-trail below (click to enlarge) is informative of the forager's tendency to forsake the shortcut that makes us see less in order to arrive somewhere faster in favour of a 'longcut' that takes an extra effort to see something different. See us consistently strolling outside the path, making frequent stops with the odd little turbulent sideways move if some plant or tree presented itself away from the footpath.
FORAGE WALK TWO
The next day I joined a forage expedition led by Elma Roelvink of the foraging app Plukdestad. It's hard not to write about this walk in comparison to the first. Roelvink gave us less the feeling of being shot at with surplus information and accordingly there was less distance between guide and us nitwits. This walk was more informal, conversational and interactive, which is perhaps the best way to learn. As we progressed Roelvink told us about her recent experiments in using the various plants we encountered and I liked the fact that we could share some of that excitement.
Again we explored a park, this time the Griftpark in my very own Whiteladies. For me this certainly added to the usefulness of this walk. Even though I visit this park at least a number of times a week and have done so for the last 10 years I never walked it as slow and deliberate like this. We found several plants that I knew by name but never had consciously seen and I learned the name of two or three plants that had so far remained nameless. Alongside Roelvink another guide tagged along, I unfortunatly didn't get her name, who specializes in the history of the park. I only knew this in broad lines (there is toxic stuff underneath the park but all authorities state that these are deep below the park and don't enter into the ecosystem/your ground elder nibbles) and I enjoyed this unexpected bonus of local history that also explained a lot about the way the park looks and functions in the wider landscape, visibly and invisibly.
The Griftpark opened in 2002 which makes it 99 years younger than the Julianapark and I think the GPS-track show it. The design of the Griftpark has the birds-eye computer perspective written all over it. As we walked there was very little reason to diverge away from the paths that were sided by well manicured lawns. Most of the trees and plants we looked at were planted and the rest grew in the cover of hedgerows and corners where the mowing machines fail to reach. Despite this our walk took longer than scheduled and could easily have gone on for a few hours more. We kept finding other plants as we progressed, each corner opening up a new line (literately) of enquiry. Foraging and deep exploration go hand in hand; not that I needed to be reminded.
Many uses and recipes were suggested to me during these two walks and I could not help to observe that foraging can provide green stuff as vegetable but that in most cases the foraged ingredient is a novelty item, an exotic taste-maker to be drowned in as much butter, bread, pasta, melted cheese or creamy sauce as you possible can. I am exaggerating, a little.
These two walks certainly showed that there is food in the city but it also showed that it won't feed the city. If anything it made me saviour the hard graft of the peasant that gives me my beloved calories.