Look Up: Forests of Edibles

One writer’s personal experience foraging in urban Copenhagen turned her into a modern day food nomad

Pinched between my thumb and forefinger is a dainty stem with three or so leaves shaped like teardrops. The leaves droop downward, like a partially-opened umbrella, yet it seems odd that a forest full of clover would be water deprived. But these aren’t wilted. And, it turns out, they aren’t clover either.

“Try it,” my guide suggests. “Or not; we’ll put them into our potato salad later.”

Just as my teeth gently break into the plant’s flesh, my guide answers what is clearly a series of questions written across my face.

“You thought it was clover, didn’t you?”

I nod, still chewing through the delicate leaves and squeezing my eyes and my fists with both surprise and puckery delight.

“Wood sorrel,” she says. And, just as I had remembered the lemony burst of sorrel in my California days, I am met with a bright flavor that doesn’t linger the same way a bite into a lemon does. The wood sorrel, tiny in stature, reminds me of the warm forest floor basking in spring’s sunbeams before summer’s lush foliage crowds out the sun.

 

Foraging is the norm in Copenhagen, as it is a verdant city abundant with open green spaces and parklets. In the heart of Norrebro, the city’s northern borough known for its street art and hipsterdom, is a cemetery treated like a public park. Here, Danish notables such as literary giant Hans Christian Andersen, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and physical chemist Niels Bohr lay resting alongside lilac, cherry blossom, and poplar trees.

The cemetery is also where you can find the best ramps in town, which is a form of wild onion that tastes like garlic in leafy form. It’s highly anticipated as harbingers of spring, and, in the ways of dark Danish humor, the joke is that dead people make the best compost.

 Sour cherries by the Valby bus stop, photo by Maya Hey

Sour cherries by the Valby bus stop, photo by Maya Hey

Fruit trees—like cherry and apple—grow in public parks and wild herbs line the perimeter of soccer fields. More than once, I have taken “the long way home” to snag a few extra sour cherries by the bus stop and added them to my homemade kirsch liquor. It is no wonder, then, that the culture of city foraging in Copenhagen drives the so-called “new nordic cuisine” and reinforces the local/seasonal discourse in its manifesto.

Foraging orients me in time and place because what’s available here and now changes by geographic locale. I arrived in Copenhagen just before the ramps burst forth from the latent winter grounds and I stayed until they went to seed and prepared the seed pods as “capers” in a salt brine. I cooed at small patches of violets in March, and waded through meadows of woodruff at the height of spring. By May, I was snacking on the seed pods of the Spanish chervil and, by June, I witnessed the elderflower bloom with its wonderfully intense perfume. Elsewhere in the world, I know I would've come across a different foraging schedule, let alone entirely different plants.

A farmer friend once gifted me resourceful foraging advice: Pass one mountain, and the seasons change on you. What's lush and abundant here may be different in timing and scale on the other side of a literal and figurative mountain.

 Goosefoot by the asphalt, photo by Maya Hey

Goosefoot by the asphalt, photo by Maya Hey

And yet, sometimes the plants that I come across are identical and I’m reminded that seeds have migrated and infiltrated different systems just as much as people. Chickweed comes to mind, as well as pineapple chamomile, goosefoot, and mugwort. To find these gems dotted across the globe reminds me of the comfort of visiting an old friend in a new town: “Hey, you! So glad to see you here.”

That I can recognize plants by their shape and taste reinforces, too, the idea that foraging is just as much a sensory adventure as it is an embodied form of learning. It’s a mental keepsake that becomes encyclopedic over time. Once you see it, you seem to find it everywhere.

They may not be bombastic and life-changing in neither taste nor appearance as they are often quietly and defiantly growing through the cracks of asphalt and grit. But forageables are everywhere, ubiquitously reminding me to tune myself to my surroundings. And, given its limited availability in both time and place, forageables help me practice a more mindful act of asking and thanking rather than demanding or expecting.

The culture of foraging might point to dreams of self-sufficiency, but it may not be a substitute to the day-to-day provisioning of an urban millennial. Instead, it reminds me that there is food all around us, most of it edible, some of it quite tasty in unforgettably piquant flavors. These are the plants that reflect my current surroundings and remind me to look up at the forests of edibles all around us.


The Foraging Cheat Sheet:

Here are some helpful visual guides for your next foraging adventure. Click on the images to the right and scroll up on each featured photo to learn more.

Frequently asked questions on the logistics of foraging:

How much can I take?

Denmark has a “one-hat law” stemming from the historical roots of foraging. The modern interpretation of that law is a “one-bag law,” although the dimensions of said bags are loosely defined. While this is not an international rule, I exercise it regularly so that there are enough forageables for others to enjoy.

How do you know if the plant is edible/toxic?

The basic rule to follow is to taste a small portion and spit it out. This is where intuition and ancestral human taste receptors are going to be your guide: Trust your tongue if something tastes off or suspicious. This advice is not meant to replace field expertise; consult a trusted guide or reference book if you’re in doubt.

But is it safe?

Humans have been foraging for millennia and it can be a safe and fun way of procuring foods when good judgment is employed. It just so happens that Copenhagen benefits from low street pollution due to fewer cars inside the city center. So give your forageables a good rinse and have at it.

When can I pick the plant?

Seasonal availability varies by region, but local farmers markets can often clue you into what’s currently available. Again, guided tours, smartphone apps, or books come in handy here (Though heavy, good old-fashioned, books with pages are easier to maneuver while foraging because they don’t need WiFi to function).

Where can I forage?

In Copenhagen, Assistens Kirkegard, Amagerbro, and Valbyparken are frequently foraged. In orher parts of the world, always consult zoning laws and municipal codes prior to embarking on a foraging expedition as some cities limit how much one can harvest of certain endangered plants or restrict certain areas. Other than that, go forth! 

Maya Hey cannot sleep on planes, though she wishes with all her might that she could. Having grown up in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, she’s crossed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans more than 100 times by her teenage years and would be hard pressed to list one locale as her hometown. All her time spent in airports has taught her a thing or two about packing light. In fact, she’s been living out of the same suitcase for the past 2 years where her recent travels have taken her from Long Beach, CA to organic farms in Japan to graduate studies in Italy. She holds a master’s degree in Food Culture and Communications from the University of Gastronomic Sciences which, combined with her dietetics and chemistry background, allows her to nerd out on fermented foods like sourdough, kombucha, and beer. She really digs the way fermentation lets us peek into the relationship between humans and microbes, and is currently interning at the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen. Follow her food adventures and lab shenanigans on Instagram.