Find your own dinner: foraging in Tower Hamlets

Meet foraging expert Kenneth Greenway, who believes anyone can find food in the green spaces of London, you just need to know what you’re looking for

Kenneth Greenway. Pic: Roman Road London

Away from concrete buildings and chewing gum-stained streets, there’s a hidden space where the fresh scent of fruit and wood fills the air. You might think you’ve jumped on a train and headed to the countryside, but actually Tower Hamlets has a rich conservation area that serves as a cemetery, a park and for Kenneth Greenway, a place to forage for his supper. 

Stinging nettle soup, a favourite dish of Kenneth’s, is made using handfuls of wild nettle leaves. “It’s the easiest wild food to make,” he says. “Most people add potatoes to thicken the soup. Let that cook for five minutes, then use a hand blender just to whip it all up and crush it all together. You add salt and pepper to taste, assuming no one’s got a dairy allergy, you can choose to add single cream.” 

Stinging Nettle. Pic: Melody Chan

A graveyard might seem like a strange place to find food but Kenneth, 46, the park manager for Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, believes foraging restores human beings’ relationship with nature and now dedicates his life to teaching foraging skills to Londoners. His monthly tours involve going out to collect ingredients before taking them back to a campfire, to cook and eat together. 

In his job as park manager, Kenneth hosts tours and encourages people to take advantage of the green spaces in the borough. “If green spaces are not used, people don’t appreciate them and they can be easily taken away by local authorities,” he says. 

Kenneth Greenway (centre) leading a foraging tour. Pic: Made in Hackney

Kenneth, who has worked at the park for over 20 years, is keen to emphasise the unexpectedness of it all as he talks about finding seeds with a coconut smell and wasabi flavoured leaves growing at the edge of graves.  

As an ex-countryside officer in Kent, Kenneth only started foraging in 2008, despite developing his passion for plants during his time at university. He later realised foraging in green spaces was an important way to connect people with the natural world “on their doorstep”. “It was a way to communicate plants to people,” he says. “People get more socially conscious and think about their place on the planet.” 

Kenneth regularly takes his daughters, aged 10 and 12, to find ingredients for baked goods and soups. “I’ve made stinging nettle crisps and they do enjoy that,” he says. “We’ve also made savoury scones with wild garlic.” 

Kenneth has also treated his girls to on-the-go smoothies as a part of a walk using berries found along the way. “I’ve got a battery-powered smoothie maker and two hand blenders. That’s all I really need,” he says.  

Foraging and spending time in nature, Kenneth believes, improves children’s connection with the environment. “There is that reassurance they get from being outdoors, the comfort and security that they feel,” he says. “If they feel sad, they’ll go to their local green space, indulge in being amongst it and be defenders of it.”  

Even a single, ordinary plant can spark a strong interest, says Kenneth. “I remember when my daughters spotted sorrel in the grass,” he says. “They sat there picking the soul out of it because it is so smelly. It tastes like sour green apples, very lemony and acidic.” 

The pandemic had a surprising impact on the rise of foraging, says Kenneth. “People want to pursue an interest in wild food and try to live more mindfully. Foraging gives people some power and autonomy over their lives. Collecting your own food has power and gives you independence from shops, knowing that you can nourish yourself when times are lean and things are tough.” 

Winter Pansies. Pic: Melody Chan

Kenneth’s top tip for saving money is finding edible flowers that cost a fortune in supermarkets. “I’ve seen them selling them in plastic boxes for six quid a punnet,” he says. “You can store them on layers of greaseproof paper in an airtight clip box, bring them out as a snack or put it on top of your coffee.” 

Three-cornered leeks also bloom during the spring months, Kenneth says, enthusing about this little-known plant. Treated as garlic alternatives, they are hard to distinguish from their poisonous doppelgängers – bluebell and daffodil leaves, so forage them with care.  

It’s important to know exactly what you’re foraging so you don’t make yourself ill, warns Kenneth. He explains how an inexperienced forager took what he thought were three-cornered leeks home, made everyone a meal and they ended up in hospital for four days. To prevent this, make sure to familiarise yourself with plant anatomy on Pl@ntNet, this helps to distinguish eatable plants from poisonous ones. 

He also stresses that parents and toddlers need to be educated to ensure their safety in green spaces. “This can make them realise there are plants that can hurt you, but only if you touch or eat them.” 

But Kenneth is confident that, with a bit of help, anyone can make their own dinner from ingredients hidden away in the grass and soil of the city. 

For the rest of our series on green spaces, click here.

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