“You’ve got to be a smart mushroom to hide from me,” says John Cook as he crouches beneath the trees of Hackney Marsh next to East London’s River Lea and pulls back the long grass to reveal a concealed line of shining St George’s mushrooms.
He plucks them and straightens up, brushing blossom from his bucket hat – “I always look like I’ve been at a wedding by the time I finish,” he mutters. Cook deftly slices the muddy stalks with a well-schooled pocket knife, holding the mushroom sideways so dirt falls to the ground rather than get trapped in the gills. The mushrooms are added to a pebbly pile in his wicker basket, nestling alongside sheaves of wild garlic, fennel, jack-by-the-hedge, water mint, marigolds and rocket. In a couple of hours, he’ll eat the mushrooms fried with wild salad at a café by the Lea, washed down by coffee, quietly revelling in the freshness of his finds.
Cook, 38, has been foraging around the Lea since he was young and knows “every square millimetre of the marshes. As I kid I used to fish on the Lea and I met an Irish guy who showed me how to snare rabbits,” he explains. “I started snaring, then met somebody ferreting and that piqued my interest. The rest I taught myself. I trained as a chef and a gardener but I prefer to be out here picking things.”
“Here” is the sprawling marshes of East London. Hackney Marsh sits in a loop between two snaking branches of the Lea as it heads south towards the Olympic Park. There’s greenery all round – further north are Walthamstow and Tottenham Marshes, while less wild patches sit just off the towpath: Springfield Park, Markfield Park; Millfields Park.
This is Cook’s territory, where he will reap wild windfalls in the shape of flowers, blossom, fruits, roots, nuts, leaves, herbs, mushrooms – anything, in short, that can be chewed, chopped, ground or infused. He fishes in the Lea – further upstream, where there are larger gaps between the boats – for carp, bream, tench, perch, roach and eel, and will supplement his diet by ferreting at a farm at Potters Bar. He used to go rabbiting on the marshes, and “made a considerable dent in the population” until it was outlawed.
“I come out picking every day pretty much,” says Cook, who picks for himself, friends and local food producers such as Pressure Drop brewery, Square Root soda, Wildes cheeses and 58 Gin. “I’ve been supplying people for ten years. Before that I used to hand things out in the pub to friends. It’s not food for hipsters, our parents and grandparents knew about this stuff, it just missed a generation.”
Cook finds something to eat in every hedgerow, darting into the marsh but rarely straying more than 50 metres from the towpath. Not all is wild. He treats the marsh like a giant allotment and secreted here and there – he is necessarily vague – are Jerusalem artichokes and even a kiwi vine. He also helps look after a nearby community garden.
There are rules. “It’s about being respectful,” he explains. “Don’t take everything. And always take from the centre, not the edge. The plants on the edge will drop bulbs and the patch will spread.” He also thinks people should avoid mushrooms. Even he is wary. “I don’t rely on one mushroom book,” he says. “The illustrations always show a perfect specimen when mushrooms are really not uniform in size and shape. I have to get the microscope out to identify the spores sometimes.”
He’s sceptical of books in general, using them as a general guide rather than a rule book. “Stuff in London doesn’t conform to what books say,” he explains. “It’s warmer, we have different habitats, soil conditions are different.”
In London, there’s barely a patch of soil that doesn’t support something edible. Pungent plumes of rocket thrive in rusting metal brackets that line the canal, chicken-of-the-wood mushroom sprout on an old rotting sluice gate in the middle of the Lea, an apple tree is marooned on the opposite bank, branches hanging over the water – Cook casually describes his hair-raising annual route to its fruit.
Even building sites have their bounties. We eye a landscaped canalside garden being dug for a new block of flats. “They get the turf from farms in the country that are covered in mushroom spores,” he says. “When it’s laid, I’ll see what I can find. I’m always looking, even when I’m walking through an estate. There’s food all over the place.”
Many people forage along the towpath on some level, even if it’s picking blackberries. Cook just takes things to a different level.
“I see them blackberry picking with their pots,” he says. “Well, I take a bucket and ladder. There’s plenty to go round.” At one point we come across half-a-dozen pre-schoolers with adult carers, who crowd round, marvelling at Cook’s fennel. “You’d pay £1.50 for that in Waitrose,” one says. Cook smiles, nods, and heads back into the marsh.
John holds occasional foraging walks. Contact him on @jonthepoacher