Words by Circe Hughes

Where’s your go-to spot to stock up your kitchen? Tesco? Planet Organic? The corner shop? For George Fredenham, it’s the trail of parkland that stretches across north London.

Well, there are some things you can’t find here, of course, but on one of George’s Flavour Led Walks, you’ll discover the myriad plants right here in the city that can be used in ways you’d never have imagined.

George is a professional forager who’s been working with wild ingredients for decades, previously at his pub, The Verulum Arms in St Albans, which he ran for 10 years before it closed in 2019 – “dodged a bullet there with the old Covid,” he says. Now, he’s fully turned his attention to running wild food courses, making dinners using foraged produce, distilling his range of ‘wild booze’ and, of course, his Flavour Led Walks.

The walks are open to the public, run by George who truly knows everything you could know about the wildlife in London. We were lucky enough to join him as he traversed the urban terrain of North London’s Parkland trail on a somewhat rainy March morning.

Tracing a disused train line from Finsbury Park to Archway, we crossed bridges over trains, encountered abandoned railway lines and stumbled upon dead platforms smattered with graffiti. All the while, learning the secret lives of the plants we saw along the way.

One such plant was an oak tree. At one point, George stopped to grab some small balls that almost look like olives off of a tree. “These are known as oak galls,” George explains, “so out of that little hole, not to scare you too much, a little wasp would have flown out.” Wasps use the oak trees to lay their eggs, creating what is essentially a cut in the tree that forms these spheres as the wasp larva grows. “What’s even more interesting about this,” he continues, “is that if you went to the British Library to look at the Psalter collection, or if you went to see the Magna Carta in Salisbury, or even the Declaration of Independence, the black ink used to write those documents is derived from this.”

“Here we have in my left hand, cow parsley. Here in my right hand, we have poison hemlock used to kill Socrates in 399 BC.”

It also turns out that there’s a plentitude of plants growing, unnoticed, by the side of the path that would go very well with a slice of bread. Intertwined with those, George can find roots, seeds, shoots and barks that can be turned into unique liqueurs that are rich with seasonal flavours – some of which are particularly delicious in a negroni.

While George is a fountain of knowledge about the good, he’s also keen to let us know about the bad – and the downright ugly. Showing us two stalks of near identical plants, George says, “So here we have in my left hand, cow parsley. Here in my right hand, we have poison hemlock used to kill Socrates in 399 BC.” Pick the wrong one by accident, and you’ll be in for a very unpleasant surprise.

To a trained eye – like George’s – there are clear differences between the two. “The most important thing to look for is on the cow parsley: here, you’ve got some ever so slight, fine hairs. And on this [poison hemlock], it’s completely bald,” he says. We won’t go into too much detail about what’ll happen if you pick up hemlock instead of cow parsley (Plato wrote about it if you really want to know), but, as George puts it, “I would say cow parsley isn’t delicious enough to warrant the risk.”

Thankfully, we’ve got an expert to do the differentiating, but for anyone wanting to start foraging themselves, George advises to “treat it a little bit more like bird watching rather than looking for food in the first instance.” It takes a long time to build up the knowledge required to be a confident forager, George continues, “I always say if you started your foraging career with two baskets, the first basket should be things that are edible and that should remain empty until you get to at least a comfortable stage later on.”

While there are risks to foraging for wild ingredients, there are certainly benefits. As we make our way further north along the Parkland Walk, we stop a few times to actually try some of the fruits of the hunt. George brings along some bits that he’s sourced on previous trips and taken home to wash, prepare, pickle, ferment, bake and blend.

For one of the snacks, we stop next to a patch of wild garlic and George breaks out some bread made with a potent sourdough starter of wild yeast that he collected off of the outside of plums. Using a hand blender, he purees a mixture of washed wild garlic, walnuts and nutritional yeast to make a plant-based pesto and spreads that onto the bread. To finish, he tops it off with fermented wild garlic salt and three-cornered leek bulbs that he’s pickled. It’s absolutely delicious.

“Treat it [foraging] a little bit more like bird watching rather than looking for food in the first instance.”

We also try some winter chanterelles, which have been pickled by George’s friend and fellow forager Susy (who runs their own events as @queer.as.funghi) in homemade plum vinegar, together with some wild garlic chermoula. It’s sharp, citrusy, spicy and unusual in all the right ways.

At the end of the walk, there’s a newfound appreciation for the nature here in the city and the life that continues despite being enclosed by roads and new builds. We leave, head south on the Central Line and feel like we’ve come back from a trip to the countryside – not N4. We might preach a lot about making the most out of your city, but Flavour Fred is really taking that one step further.

Local Heroes is a series where we big up the people, small businesses and neighbourhood spots that make London great, you can see more from our series here.