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A wee walk on the wild side
Experiments in urban foraging in Gorgie, Edinburgh
Hello! This week, we’re bringing you some bonus content from our CITY issue, which will soon come to a close with our usual Letter from the Editors for everyone and some CITY-related recipes for paid subscribers.
So far in CITY, we’ve been to Kolkata, London, Barcelona, Berlin, Hong Kong, New York, and Oakland. Now, our last piece takes us north to the hilly, majestic city of Edinburgh. We first stretch our legs in Gorgie, a southwest neighbourhood home to food designer and retailer Steph Marsden of Amuse.
We connected with Steph earlier this year about documenting her participation The Wildbiome Project, a citizen-science experiment that began in May 2023 and involved foraging and eating wild foods for a month to assess the impact on health and the microbiome. We commissioned CITY back in February and originally fretted that this piece might come too late to include in the issue — but thankfully, everything has worked out time-wise and we’re thrilled to share her reflections on the project with you here. The following excerpts from her journals explore her new connections to place and renewed appreciation for food labour. - IV & ZJ
Observations: A Post-Pademic Walk Through My Neighbourhood
It’s early spring, and as I step onto my tenement back green, I see the start of dandelions, young nettles, and hogweed shoots. An apple tree still bearing rotting unpicked fruit to my left and a sprouting hedge full of bramble thorns waiting for the fruits of the autumn season. I smile to myself as I see the wild strawberry variety I transplanted from my parent's overgrown garden in-between lockdowns, camouflaged amongst the undesirable “weeds” — plants thought to be in the wrong place.
Like many shared private spaces in the city, it's shamefully “unkempt”, but the wild parts are great for nature, making it a desirable hang-out for squirrels, birds, snails, slugs, insects, and local cats. It’s been a battle to try to keep the space safe and secure, but the wild parts play a role here too. I’ve certainly grown fond of the nettle patch, for its success at deterring intruders who may be looking for a place to empty their bladders after a Heart’s football match.
There is litter everywhere. It’s unsurprising, since this is one of the most densely populated areas of Edinburgh, and is loved by fly-tippers who seek out our community to dump their business waste or old rental furniture. Some of this anti-social behaviour has been addressed by the local councillor who regularly walks around the area, tweeting at the council to uplift the rubbish and cut the hedges, and by local community artists who initiated a project disposing of needles and crafting, planting, and painting in the streets, to liven up areas in need of a little care. Although the art may be a sign of gentrification, it is appreciated by many.
Apart from furniture, mattresses, and unceasing dog shit, the most noticeable items are empty cans of Tennent’s Lager, plastic takeaway cartons, and McDonald's packaging, interspersed with the odd bit of shiny plastic or interestingly textured ropes or cable ties. Through a fence near the brewery I see a pizza box surrounded by these types of items, backlit by a sunny burst of daffodils; it is a sweet and weird juxtaposition as surely someone must have planted the daffs but nobody picked up the rubbish.
I follow a route which became one of my favourite lockdown walks. I pass car parks planted with spiky-leaved bushes of blue-green mahonia and blousy roses. I traipse over a wooden bridge with a flowering currant bush on the right and past my local, fragrant sweet cicely patch.
This patch of land by the Water of Leith always brings me calm and joy. I love to see that the kids from the local primary school, Balgreen, are usually outside. Often the younger ones walk two in a row, holding hands or clutching clipboards for identifying plants. Sometimes I see them cooking over a fire in their outdoor school area, which is peppered with hammocks swinging from trees. I swing past the skate park, past the playground, which are always packed with kids and their adults during the summer.
Then I wander through Saughton Walled Garden and head down Gorgie Road. Gorgie, a southwest neighbourhood, just 3.5 km from the centre of Edinburgh, has the majority of usual UK retail suspects: an Aldi plastered with large “Buy Scottish'' ads, a big Sainsburys, a wee Co-op, Greggs, Costa, Poundstretcher, plus a large array of independent grocery shops selling a diverse range of staples, fruit and veg to serve the needs of a diverse community.
As I walk down Gorgie Road from Saughton Park I take care to observe the spaces, the food, and people also walking. I long to ask them what they think Gorgie tastes like, and what they tend to eat at home most regularly. Some day I may ask…
The Wildbiome Project: Preparing to Taste Georgie
As life would have it, I now have a little more opportunity to discover what Gorgie tastes like. In February, I signed up for a call out for participants in The Wildbiome Project, a citizen science project led by forager Monica (Mo) Wilde, to examine what effect a wild food-only diet would have on the gut microbiome. Along with fellow forager Matthew Rooney, Mo spent a year during the COVID-19 lockdown eating only wild food. They documented their experiences in their book The Wilderness Cure. They both found significant health benefits and noticed interesting changes to their gut microbiome during this time, and wanted to expand the project to allow further tests as a basis for research. In essence, they wanted to know: If you are what you eat, what happens when you add something wild?
I was one of 26 participants who would be living off a wild indigenous British diet. Half the group would be eating wild for three months and the remainder (myself included), for one month. This meant cutting out most sugar, dairy, carbs, and fat, as well as caffeine and alcohol, based on what was classified as wild and available in the UK. As a citizen science project, the plan was to raise funds, log and document everything we picked and ate, while taking a lot of tests, including nutrition and hormone tests, blood glucose monitoring, and gut samples aimed at analyzing changes to our health. At the end, our results would be compared against a control group of 26 people eating normal, store-bought food.
In preparation, I spent a couple of months stocking my kitchen, filling my freezer with wild game, sourcing a stash of wild nuts, and re-organising the stockpile of smoked fish I’d accrued from travels around Scotland in the past. I’d intended to use this fish to make Cullen skink, but had ended up lazily stashing it in the freezer after a couple of days in the fridge. I filled jars with wildflower bubbling sodas and started fermenting wild greens and pickling buds. I googled “how to make mead” and found a few articles with lists of required starters, sterilizers, and specialist equipment. I ignored the fermenter-bro rhetoric and re-entered “How to make wild mead”, setting about a brew with nothing more than a large jar, luke-warm water, local honey, and witchy enthusiasm. This enthusiasm was less about magic, and more about trusting in my experiences of dabbling in fermentation over the last few years and learning to use all of my senses when observing the fermentation process.
As the project’s start date approached, I tidied out my kitchen cupboards, hiding the tempting array of teabags, herbs, spices, pasta, and anything containing sugar on shelves behind doors that I wouldn’t plan to open for the duration of the month. The cupboard I would open was reserved for wild food only. I planned a couple of days off from my retail job for when I started the wild food diet, in case I was lacking in energy or suffering from caffeine withdrawal.
Eating Wild Part 1: Flowers, Greens, and Labour
It’s possible I’d had romantic notions of how my wild food diet would begin: spring sunshine dappled on plants; me, picking cherry blooms and wild greens on the way back from reading books in the local parks. I was looking forward to planning day trips to the coast, or the woods to harvest seaweed or hunt for mushrooms, replacing my expenditure on brunch and beers with Scotrail day tickets. But my first week is spent with a cold, popping out only for short walks in-between intermittent bouts of rain, on mostly grey days. It’s a good reminder that I am a part of nature and nature cannot always be controlled.
As the skies — and my cold — begin to clear, I venture out more. I pick the fresh shoots of dandelions, young nettles, and hogweed shoots from my tenement back green, which I will freeze and use for quick dinners later in the month. I curse myself for not picking the now rotten fruit off of the apple tree. I notice how the sweet cicely seeds I planted two years ago are now growing, and how the wild alpine strawberry has spread as ground cover.
There’s still litter and dog shit everywhere. It’s often smeared across pavements like the flourish of a sauce on a plate of a fine-dining restaurant and means I’m usually watching the ground during this part of my journey through my neighbourhood. The local councillor, who used to walk around the area making reports, has since been replaced.
I walk my favourite route, harvesting tart but juicy blue fruits from spiky-leaved bushes of mahonia next to where, later in the month, I’ll be plucking petals from the rugosa (the beach rose being a council favourite) when they’re about to fall from the bush. Over the bridge, the (flowering) currant flowers have already been picked, but I discover the heady scents of cicely in many more locations than I noticed last year. I find wild leek, wild garlic, nettles (both dead and stinging – alive!), ribwort plantain heads, and Jack-by-the-Hedge (garlic mustard) in patches away from the main path. I stuff the bounty into the biodegradable freezer bags I have taken to carrying around with me. I sometimes feel awkward when picking greens, especially in larger quantities, but the roll of bags I’m using to collect feels like a kind of shield. I could be a dog owner, about to clear up my dog’s mess. Except I don't have a dog.
As I hear the gentle gush of the river, I think of the Dreamer of Peace sculpture in Saughton's walled garden and realise I feel tranquil again. I haven't seen many schoolchildren outside this year. It must be because the weather has been murky, and COVID-19 restrictions have been relaxed. Up an embankment nearby, I find yarrow, common vetch, and the delicious lemony greens of common sorrel. I pick around some leaves, which are adorned with cheap plastic feathers off the boas worn by Harry Styles fans. They are still lingering on these plants days after his Murrayfield Stadium gig. Harry, please say something to your fans! I pick cherry blossoms from the trees outside of Saughton Walled Garden, remembering to select those that are beginning to open but not yet in full bloom, which I will take home to ferment and salt.
Day to day, foraging to eat is quite simple. I pick things as and when I need them, on the way home from work, or by adding a little extra walk when visiting friends or running errands around the city. The process of seeing and picking within nature is always calming. I I like learning about the medicinal properties of some plants, and using them to relieve period pain or other ailments.
The food prep and cooking, however, is quite a lot of work. As I ration eggs, get creative with nut flours, and endeavour not to waste anything, I wonder if Mrs Beeton would be proud of my household management.
By the midway point of my month of eating wild, I am thinking more about domestic labour than I am about my immersion in nature and daily connection to indigenous practices. So much of my time is spent doing the washing up, putting things away, and keeping on top of preserving and preparing the bounty of my foraging. It’s impossible to turn these thoughts of labour off. One night while watching Jewish Matchmaking on Netflix and munching crab and sweet cicely pancakes, I began thinking about the extra labour involved for those observing a diet rooted in specific cultural or religious practices. Labour not just in the daily cooking of food, but in the planning and sourcing of ingredients. I think about the impact of diets on socialization and how much I rely on other people’s labour. I try to socialize as much as I can, but as my wild food diet is exclusionary I miss a friend's birthday celebration in a restaurant.
When I have to translate the common names of all the plants I pick into Latin for spreadsheets (see the glossary at the end of this piece!) , I feel like I’m doing a Masters again! However, this process helps me understand some roots of biology I never got to learn at school, and makes me appreciate the variations of common names used in both different regions and different countries by other foragers. Fitting all these tasks around my day job in food retail and buying, I abandon the notion of train trips to the coast on days off, and choose instead to rest. I ditch my plan to spend significant time diarising my Wildbiome experience on Instagram, or on my sporadic food and design blog Amuse in lieu of rest. Rest is important.
Eating Wild Part 2: The Power of Community
One morning around two weeks into the diet, I wake at 5:00 am to sunshine streaming through the window and a whole load of missed Whatsapp messages and videos from my friend Robyn.
“I think I’ve found St George’s mushrooms in the cemetery. Look! They’re in a ring… so I took some home to identify.”
The location is just 10 minutes from the flat. This feels too good to be true, I am nervous but also excited. Though I’m not normally a morning person, by 5.30, I am on my way to the grounds, armed with a rucksack and mushroom knife.
It takes me a while to locate the patches in the video. When I find them, I’m nervous, as I’ve never ID’d a mushroom on my own before, certainly not one I was planning to eat. I re-read all the Instagram posts of my fellow Wildbiome foragers about this variety, which include pictures and descriptions, as well as a handy guide to lookalikes. Then I spend a while on Google to confirm that this could be none other than the fabled St George's mushroom. The smell is so distinct – like wet pastry! (Or, if you agree with some of the internet commentaries, semen.) I also take a spore print, but hours later I realize that using a white piece of paper for white spores wasn't the wisest move.
I return home, 95% sure of the ID, and cook just a couple of the mushrooms for breakfast. At first, they taste a bit bland, but then I realize they just have a different kind of flavour than the mushrooms I commonly eat. That night I make the most delicious sea spaghetti dish with the mushrooms, a creamy sauce made with chestnut flour, a little wild garlic, and lovage, seasoned with dried fermented horseradish.
After that, the mushrooms become a staple of my wild diet. As a snack, I make mushroom pate with rosemary found in Harrison Park and dried fermented wild garlic to eat with acorn and seaweed crackers. I take the plate to a Eurovision party, along with some of my homemade mead.
Almost a week later, I get a Whatsapp message – “Food is coming!” – from two friends who’d been foraging in the woods outside of the city. She has a pantry full of fresh and dried staples waiting for me, a flurry of gifts that make it feel like Christmas. They hand me a huge variety of seaweeds, a bunch of sweetly scented woodruff, and a textural variety of chicken of the woods mushrooms.
This friend was one of many who left jars for me at work or sent Instagram messages asking if I’d like the wild food surpluses they had. I realize that having a strong community is key to eating this way. Unlike the majority of foragers in the research project, I was not a professional, and at times I felt a little awkward as to the limitations of my knowledge. The network of support I found through the Wildbiome Project was essential to my success in and enjoyment of the project.
Take-Aways: In Both Senses of the Word
As I near the end of my month on the project, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at my energy levels. Someone even told me that I was glowing! Fortunately, my cravings for foods I could not eat weren’t as extreme as I had anticipated.
I head down Gorgie Road again. Since last May, many new takeaways and grocery shops have opened despite recent harassment from teenage gangs in the area. Sadly some of last year's takeaways closed before I had a chance to visit them and I resolve to sample all of the offerings once my wild diet is over. I reflect on how this experience has given me a greater appreciation of the edible bounty on my doorstep — both the diversity of tasty wild plants found permeating spaces not filled with concrete, stone, tarmac or brick, and the abundance of food businesses in the local community. I begin to think about which local eatery’s food I will enjoy first, once the experiment is over. Will it be pizza from 1926 or masala dosa from Chennai’s Marina?
The experiment concludes as it began, with a slew of blood tests, blood glucose monitoring, and the all-important gut microbiome test. There is only one issue: I can’t poop on demand on the day I planned to give my sample. Or the next day. Like my illness at the start of the month, it was a reminder that I can’t always control this part of nature…myself.
Along with the other 25 participants, I am looking forward to receiving the results of my microbiome tests and detailed analysis of the project which we expect to be shared publicly in September. In the meantime, I have returned to my previous predominantly organic diet, the majority of food sourced from Locavore CIC, where I work. Although I doubt wild food will be the mainstay of my diet in the future, it’s impossible to imagine life without wee walks on the wild side in the coming seasons; seeing, sniffing, picking, tasting, learning and sharing.Now, as I walk down Gorgie Road from Saughton Park I wonder how many people in the neighbourhood know just how many wild greens are in the vicinity of these shops and take aways. Some day I may ask…
To find out more about The Wildbiome Project or help make a donation to cover the costs of the tests and subsequent analysis, please visit their Go Fund Me page.
Steph Marsden is a food designer, retailer and researcher based in Edinburgh. She completed an MSc in Gastronomy at QMU, Edinburgh in 2018. Steph believes finding fun ways to ‘play with food’, or our perceptions of it, is a great way to learn more about the complex nuances of what we eat, and its relation to culture, the environment and our global food system. She will be documenting her forthcoming food projects on her blog at.