John Rensten doesn’t describe himself as an expert in foraging, he’s not a chef, or even particularly academic in the way he works. But what John is, is something that is vital to those who work in food and hospitality: outstandingly passionate. Johns knowledge of foraging foods is amazing, and always growing, as he becomes more interested not just in the variations of what can be foraged – but how it grows. In this weeks episode, he names at least four ways you can use the common dandelion and why you don’t have to forage things that are edible…
00:00:00 Marks Introduction
00:03:04 Meeting John, setting the scene in Wareham, Dorset
00:04:03 For generations, foraging was the way we gathered food…
- 00:04:54 “We are definitely hard-wired to go out on these foods related, supplies related, sustaining ourselves treasure hunts.”
00:05:11 When did this stop? The advent of retail
- 00:06:05 “In the UK, we’ve definitely got a big… I don’t know if you want to call it a knowledge gap, but it’s a culture gap.”
- 00:07:15 “Just getting a group of people into the woods, getting them to be nemophilist – a wanderer of the woods. Just getting people to do that for a little while has enough value on its own.”
00:08:35 Does it feel like there has been a resurgence of interest in foraging in the UK?
- 00:09:22 “Now there is quite a few more foraging teachers because we’ve created them. Quite a few people who have come on walks with me in the early days are now running their own walks…”
00:11:00 On awareness for foraging getting better and worse…
- 00:12:32 “If you’re forming an emotional relationship with a little piece of land, you’re going to want to protect it. Even in an urban environment, that could be a weird, scruffy little triangle of land that’s just behind the bus stop… If it yields cherry plums or has a fruit tree on it, that every year you pick from – you’re going to form an emotional relationship with that landscape!”
00:14:35 3,000 types of ‘macro-fungi’ in the UK – and we only eat a very small percentage!
- 00:16:31 “We have ground rules when me and Ellie go for a walk, if I’m like, ‘let’s go for a walk’, she’s like ‘Ok, great but a walk involves walking not standing still in the same spot for twenty minutes!’”
00:17:27 Why do we only see the same four or five mushrooms in the supermarkets?
- 00:17:45 “Quite a large amount of the wild edible species have a symbiotic relationship with certain tree species – some of them with only one tree species, some of them with multiple…”
00:20:05 The root systems of mushrooms – the bit you don’t see!
- 00:21:23 “The mushroom is a fruit of an underground organism called the mycelium and the mycelium is an interconnected network of white fibres, and those white fibres are made up of even smaller fibres which are called hyphae which are 100th of the width of a human hair.”
00:24:18 Why is it we as a population are fairly naïve on the science behind mushrooms?
- 00:25:11 “I hate the word expert, because im not an expert in anything. My knowledge is so disparate, I’m so all over the place and constantly being seduced by the next topic that dovetails into foraging…”
00:25:56 The opportunities research around mushrooms creates & benefits of foraged food
- 00:28:04 “The problem that we’ve got with mushroom based medicines is: nobody has any idea how to isolate what’s going on, and in fact isolating what is going on is the wrong approach anyway.”
- 00:30:22 “The act of collecting it is an exercise in mindfulness and personal wellbeing.”
00:33:33 Should we teach foraging and plant life at schools? We may know more than we think!
- 00:35:01 “I think anybody in the UK can identify a dandelion, can’t they? Any schoolkid can identify and do dandelion clock.”
00:39:12 When John started foraging 20 years ago, he didn’t have a nature background…
- 00:39:51 “Stinging nettles. Masses of protein – 30% something protein, fibre, iron, calcium magnesium etc. And I used it for all sorts of different reasons.”
00:40:35 Why doesn’t foraging happening? A cultural gap…
- 00:42:01 “What’s in my fridge? There are a mish-mash of different things in my fridge. There are wild foods, there are things that I’ve made myself and there’s also things that come from the supermarket… I’m not a purist…”
00:45:26 Part of the challenge – the perception that the countryside produces ‘clean’ food, and the city ‘dirty’ food
- 00:46:05 “I think we just kind of go: here’s the city, here’s the countryside and think of them as to things butting up against each other. We don’t think of them as tendrils of one, tendrils of the other extending into each other.”
00:46:26 Poisonous plants!
- 00:47:55 “With mushrooms as well, I generally tell people if their ultimate destination for the mushrooms they pick is in a compost heap not in a frying pan, they will never ever poison themselves.”
00:49:34 Why do mushrooms pop out of the ground and fruit?
- 00:52:58 “I think of the creating the mushrooms and sporing as more of a backup plan.”
00:56:21 What do mushrooms do to help trees grow? Back to symbiotic relationships…
- 00:57:26 “I think of it like a private medical plan, because once you’re committed to it, you’re committed to it. The tree will be getting a lot from the mushroom. It will be getting defensive chemical compounds; it will be getting anti-fungal compounds…”
00:59:16 John used to own a gastropub in London!
- 01:00:26 “It was like setting out to sea with a load of planks and fabric and trying to build a boat as you go along.”
- 01:02:43 Which bit of opening a gastropub caused John the most stress?
01:04:55 Foraged food built into menus… Was this a challenge to upkeep?
- 01:06:04 “I’m not a chef, and it’s often really nice to see what a chef will do.”
01:07:55 Chefs are amazing!
01:10:30 John’s book – ‘The Edible City’
- 01:11:20 “What I was trying to do was bring as much of the countryside into the city as I could, but then it became obvious to me that actually there was tonnes of the countryside in the city anyway depending on how you choose to look at it.”
01:14:13 The challenge to being specific and food regulations
01:15:29 John’s learning process around food & foraging
- 01:17:22 “I learnt more about nature from one square mile in central London than I did from the rest of the country put together.”
01:21:14 Where do you begin if you’re interesting in foraging?
01:27:57 Marks final thoughts and sign off
If you’d like to learn more about John, Forage London or even get involved in foraging food for yourself… Check out their website and social media below, or listen to the full episode here.