Thursday, March 18th, 2010

On Saturday 20th February we had a walk to the herb garden between Loughborough and Angell Town estates. Wild, edible plants were abundant there and we managed to lose ourselves in discovering them (again!)  Recipes from this month are at the end of the post.

Setting out for the herb garden

The invisible food project is about creating a space where people can learn. I’m not an expert and many of the walk participants have more skills and knowledge about plants than me. I encourage people to share their skills and also to not be afraid to ask. 

The herb garden gets great natural light and is sheltered from wind and roads

And what we’re learning is wider than plant identification, there’s also cooking, working together, crafts and arts activities and how greater awareness of our natural environment links into wider global issues of food production, food transportation, packaging and big business sponsorship of all of this.

We searched for dandelion buds to make capers with. We didn't find many but it was exciting finding those we did

Picking the curry plant

Searching for ground level herbs

Finding a Helibol

Lots of chickweed by the memorial wall in the wild space behind Edgehill house

Does it smell nice? does it taste good?

Learning to identify goosegrass

"No, I've never seen that plant before in my life!"

By the nettle patch

A nice big bunch of chickweed and goose grass for the curry

Searching for the holy grail of the dandelion bud

Yet more chickweed

Elam Street space: the pond was restored 2 years ago but this space remains underused

Preparing the dandelion bud

Back at the centre, we began preparation of the goosegrass and chickweed curry and Segen Ghebrekidan performed a coffee ceremony for us.  Originally, we wanted to have a coffee ceremony conducted as a collaboration by an Ethiopian (Tsehay) and an Eritrean women (Segen). These communities have suffered a great deal of conflict because of wars in their countries but the coffee ceremony, amongst many other cultural manifestations, is central to both. Tsehay couldn’t make it but we’ll be doing this again before the end of the year. Enjoy these photos!

Welcome to the world of coffee!

Toasting the beans with a bit of clapping by the looks of it

The smell was delicious. And Segen wore a traditional dress too.

More photos to be posted soon.

The coffee ceremony begins

It's traditional to throw popcorn on the floor during the ceremony


Smelling the coffee

More smelling coffee


Spreading the coffee out


Preparing the beans

Preparing the coffee 2


after grinding


Crowded round to see the proceedings

Boiling the coffee up


Finally, pouring it out into the special cups

Sitting around having a chat over coffee


Goosegrass and chickweed curry which was cooking all the while


We have poster with the word WELCOME in all the languages that are spoken in Lambeth. Tamil is missing so we added it on, as one of our regulars speaks Tamil

So why have a coffee ceremony, so obviously linked with East Africa, here in Brixton. In terms of the food miles argument, we’re obviously addressing that with the foraging we do as a community walk. However, Segen and I feel that in a place such as Brixton, it’s important to recognise the social history of the people living here and how important food is to the cultural and emotional wellbeing of people who have moved to London from other countries. We also search for alternatives that can grow here and make wild and interesting combinations (Eritrean bread and rosehip jelly)!  This next stage of Invisible Food is all about mixing up native plants with the culinary traditions of all the different ethnic groups here in Lambeth.

February Special: Goosegrass and chickweed soup

Use goosegrass only when it is very young, otherwise the stalks are tough and stringy

3 handfuls goosegrass

2 handfuls mixed weeds (eg ribwort plantain, nettle, dandelion, yarrow, clover, daisies)

Herbs for seasoning (eg lovage, thyme, marjoram, lemon balm, peppermint, dill, parsley, chives)

1 onion and 1 potato

2 cloves garlic

Oil for frying

Approx 750 ml vegetable stock

Wash the weeds and herbs and chop them coarsely. Chop the onion and the garlic and fry it in oil until golden. Add the herbs and weeds. Add the stock and cook for about 10 minutes. Let cool slightly, then liquidize until soup is smooth.

Goosegrass curry

3 handfuls young goosegrass

2 onions

2 cloves garlic

100g coconut milk

1 piece fresh ginger

3 tsps fresh coriander, cumin powder and chilli powder

2 carrots

2 tomatoes

250ml water

Cut the onions and garlic and fry in some oil on a medium heat. Stir in the chopped ginger and all the spices stirring all the time. Chop and add carrots, tomatoes, and the goosegrass. Add water and simmer until cooked. Serve with rice or chapatti.

Goosegrass has a long history of domestic medicinal use and is also used widely by modern herbalists. A valuable diuretic, eczema and psoriasis, and as a general detoxifying agent in serious illnesses such as cancer. The whole plant, excluding the root astringent, depurative, diaphoretic, diuretic, febrifuge, tonic and vulnerary. It has been shown of benefit in the treatment of glandular fever, ME, tonsillitis, hepatitis, cystitis etc. The plant is often used as part of a spring tonic drink with other herbs. A tea made from the plant has traditionally been used internally and externally in the treatment of cancer. One report says that it is better to use a juice of the plant rather than a tea. From Plants for a Future

Chickweed has a very long history of herbal use, being particularly beneficial in the external treatment of any kind of itching skin condition. It has been known to soothe severe itchiness even where all other remedies have failed. In excess doses chickweed can cause diarrhoea and vomiting. It should not be used medicinally by pregnant women. The whole plant is astringent, carminative, demulcent, diuretic, expectorant, laxative, refrigerant, vulnerary. Taken internally it is useful in the treatment of chest complaints and in small quantities it also aids digestion. It is also believed to relieve constipation and be beneficial in the treatment of kidney complaints. The expressed juice of the plant has been used as an eyewash.

Hembesha (Eritrean Bread) is a traditional Eritrean recipe for a classic leavened flatbread flavoured with garlic, fenugreek, coriander and cardamom. The full recipe is presented here and I hope you enjoy this classic Eritrean version of: Eritrean Bread (Hembesha).  

(Eritrean Bread) Recipe

Origin: Eritrea      Period: Traditional




300ml lukewarm water
25g fresh yeast
1 tsp ground fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp ground coriander seeds
1/2 tsp ground cardamom seeds
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tsp salt
1 egg
1 tbsp oil
225g flour
225g whole-wheat flour


Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and set aside for a few minutes. Meanwhile mix the eggs, oil and spices and beat lightly.

Sift the flour into a bowl, add the egg mixture and the yeast. Mix to combine tip onto a floured surface, knead for 10 minutes, place in a clean bowl, cover and allow to rise in a warm place for at least an hour.

Knock the dough back and knead again for 1o minutes. Then form the dough into flatbreads some 2cm high and just large enough to fit in a frying pan. Allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, decorate with a knife then place in a lidded frying pan and bake for 10 minutes on medium-low heat. Turn the bread over and bake for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the pan, spread some water and butter over the top surface and serve. The bread can either be served warm or it can be served cold and cut into wedges.


Forage at Roots and Shoots – contamination of soil

Segen and I are going to do a forage of the site on Sunday. I had a very interesting chat with Linda, Director of roots and shoots in preparation for this day and as part of the risk assessment. This is something I have to do to check the quality of the soil in the places we are foraging in. The present site of roots and shoots was a wartime Meccano factory, manufacturing parts for fighter aircraft. In 1983, when Roots and shoots began working the land to create the gardens, they found tin, broken glass and other metal objects in the ground. Soil testing showed heavy lead and cadmium in the soil. 20 Tonnes of top soil were brought in to remedy this. Across the road in the open green space, there used to be early Victorian cottages until around 1984/5 when they were allowed to fall into disrepair and then demolished. So all this means, that the gardens aren’t ideal for foraging also Linda said that some topsoil has been put on the wildlife garden.
A question that I need answering and I call on any soil experts, permaculturalists and other interested people out there:

how long does it take for contaminated soil to repair itself?

is this indeed possible?

What difference is there between the heavy metals, lead, cadmium etc?

What plants can aid the process?
On the day, we’ll be doing some plant ID on the wild plants in the wildlife garden and I know there’s some chickweed hitching a ride in the raised beds around the garden. Then we’ll cook up a wild leaf risotto. We look forward to seeing you there between 2 and 4pm

Goosegrass in Tower Hamlets cemetery - a good place for foraging. Not built on for centuries, away from roads. Just respect the dead!


This is something I’ve been researching since this project began 2 years ago. I’m interested in getting in touch with academics, pressure groups, gardeners, guerrilla gardeners, anyone who may have some research or personal interest in this area.

I have guidelines which I use on the walks and they are:

Never pick from the side of the road, because of heavy metals particles. The further away from a road the better and the effects of roadside pollution diminish as the distance increases from the road. A hedge, row of trees or house creating a barrier between the plant and the road helps.

Favour the dog free spaces. Some children’s areas are great but obviously don’t go mooching around a child’s area if you don’t have children.  (In fact, I started urban foraging after the birth of my son, I spent a lot of time in playgrounds!)

Be wary of bomb site created green spaces – traces of lead in the soil from Victorian piping. I tend not to pick from Wyck Gardens as I have heard, but I haven’t seen written evidence of this, that this land has tested positive for arsenic and lead. This being the reason Ebony Horse club weren’t going to use the land as stables for their horses. However, I believe they are going ahead and using this land.

Always be very, very careful when picking because of needles and other sharp objects. Wyck Gardens is also notorious (by the comfrey patch) as a place that drug dealers use. Stay wise.

I feel this is really important to discuss, not only for longterm health issues but also hopefully it will be a catalyst to put pressure on to reduce car dependence.