by Gina Beach
Gina’s essay appears in episode 25 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
I followed my heart to Bristol, England after two years of long-distance dating and nuptials at the Chicago courthouse in December. My spouse visa arrived in my passport at the end of February, before anyone knew how strange 2020 would be. I was taking the plunge to start a new life abroad and my British husband asked how long I needed to organize my affairs. I told him I could be ready in a fortnight. He bought me a one-way ticket in early March. Less than a week after arriving in the UK, Covid-19 managed to alter my plans of building community and discovering my new city.
Normally known as a city full of culture, music, hip restaurants and trendy bars, I was looking forward to dining at Bristol’s Wapping Warf container pop-ups, finding the best curry houses and sampling Michelin-starred fare. I thought restaurant closures would mean I would feel far removed from the UK culinary scene, instead I’ve found myself totally captivated by what’s free and available right outside my doorstep.
I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio and spent my 20s living in Chicago. While I’m no stranger to the urban garden, farmers markets or unusual ingredients on modern menus, I was totally surprised that my new slow pace of life led me to become an urban forager.
It started innocently enough as I found myself using a stick to dig up wild garlic while on a run in Oldbury Court Estate one day.
It started innocently enough as I found myself using a stick to dig up wild garlic while on a run in Oldbury Court Estate one day. I added the fragrant leaves to stir-fries and turned them into pesto with pecorino and pine nuts, a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. I joined an online forum and swapped tips about where to find it and how much to cut. The tender leaves and oniony shoots of the ramp’s European cousin became a consistent mainstay in my fridge during a confusing socially-distanced spring.
I (like millions of other child-free homeworkers) started baking sourdough bread, planted a garden and took long walks for my government-approved “one form of exercise per day” during lockdown. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in what would become his signature doublespeak that if you can, residents must stay local, meaning I had to walk, run or cycle to open spaces near my home rather than drive. My husband and I joked that we traded newlywed bliss for the retiree lifestyle watching the plants grow and cooking elaborate meals.
Described as a City in the Countryside, I became infatuated with the array of culinary delights on offer in the network of 400 public parks that crisscross the 42 square miles of Bristol. And while there were no official time constraints on being out and about, the mandate to “minimise the time you are out of your home” from March to July made me feel like I was bending if not breaking the rules if I went out for more than an hour or two. We planned just-long-enough bike rides next to the river, through graveyards and past old stately homes. While I knew we weren’t allowed to sit on park benches or linger, I convinced myself that foraging counted as exercise as anyone who’s ever gardened will confirm: picking crops is definitely physical work.
I convinced myself that foraging counted as exercise as anyone who’s ever gardened will confirm: picking crops is definitely physical work.
Just as the wild garlic was going to seed, the trees started to bloom.
We took to spending evenings in parks with friends and my scavenger hunt continued with a new goal in mind: elderflower. I cut the fragrant bunches from trees in Greenview Cemetery and once I made a positive ID, I started seeing elder trees everywhere. I made cordial from a recipe traced back to Roman times, soaking pollen-laden flowers overnight then straining and boiling down the liquid with a sack of sugar. My homebrewer husband and I made elderflower champagne, modifying his ginger beer recipe and adding in the delicate white flowers.
In late summer while cycling through the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (could there be a more British moniker?) I noticed the blackberries had finally ripened turning from fuchsia to deep purple. I learned that over 20 species of them grow in the UK. Some are more sour, some are sweet but all are delightful to stumble across and taste. I stopped at every bramble patch sampling and comparing the fruit.
I found tiny, juicy wild strawberries that tasted even better given their adorable compactness. The more I talked about how much I was enjoying Mother Nature’s wild treasures, the more people shared their knowledge. I learned about the beautiful purple weed, Himalayan Balsam that can be made into a curry.
The more I talked about how much I was enjoying Mother Nature’s wild treasures, the more people shared their knowledge.
A friend showed me the salty sea plant Samphire while camping in Wales. Then she told me that Tesco, the local grocery chain, sells this tasty succulent for a whopping £15.66 per kg. I felt like I’d struck gold being able to harvest in myself.
Gin and Tonic rivals tea for the UK’s most celebrated beverage and while I’m not distilling my own, I started infusing my own botanicals. The sloe berries of the blackthorn bush make for a delicious and colorful infusion that should be ready by Christmas. Next year I’ll try infusing dandelions and burdock root.
There are times when you deliberately uproot your life, heeding the call of adventure and the unknown. There are other times when the universe laughs at your plans and lays out a wholly new direction to embrace or reject. As the city reopens, I’ve been hesitant to visit bars and restaurants, but I’m already preparing to collect the hazelnuts, hawthorn and rose hips as summer turns to autumn and new wild foods ripen, just waiting to be foraged.
Illustration by Corinne Pease
About Gina Beach
Regina Beach is a writer and educator from the American midwest currently living in living in Bristol, England. She specializes in content related to the arts, culture, travel, wellness and the unique people and places in those spheres. She learned about foraging and edible plants during a nine-week bushcraft course off the grid in northern Maine, but she didn’t put her skills to the test until COVID closed all her favorite haunts. She is most at home pedaling her bicycle or on her yoga mat. Read more of Regina’s writing and listen to her podcast at www.reginagbeach.com or follow her on Instagram @saturn_returns_podcast.