Foraging in Valby Park

Last updated: 19 Feb 2018.

2015 update: it’s coming round again, quite possibly redoubled. See fex Spis Amager Fælled, and from the US, Salad from the sidewalk, which has lovely pix in the faux traditional style. And ditto for 2016 – see the rather bucolic Galloway Wild Foods, with a big foraging events programme…VINK in 2021

The arrival of warmer days means it’s time for some foraging. As in the UK collecting local food is a la mode among the Danish chattering classes, chiming in with the Nordic food vibe, silly prices and all. More down to earth efforts include Byhøst (gloss: City Harvest), who crowdsource ingredients and offer simple recipes (2020 update: new owner, activities much reduced). On 25 May a free sanketur (foraging walk) was on offer in nearby Valby Park, organised by the local community council and led by Julie Swane.

Valbyparken, inaugurated in 1939, is Copenhagen’s biggest park at 64.2 hectares. The area was used as a dump until 1937, but now boasts northern Europe’s biggest rose garden and Café Rosenhaven (1964), a naturlegeplads (nature playground), 17 themed gardens (established during CPH’s turn as European Capital of Culture in 1996) and three haveforeninger (allotment associations).

A number of festivals, most recently a medieval market, and open air concerts are held in the park during the summer, and plans are afoot for horrors! an urban beach at the mouth of Harrestrup Å. Given the park’s varied topography, from wilderness areas to cultivated lawns, hedges and bushes to windswept coastlines, it’s one of the best places within the city limits for foraging.

What we gathered (see photos from a previous Byhøst sanketur):

  • humle – humulus lupulus – wild hops (twisty turny shoot around another plant)
  • granskud – fir tree shoots (really)
  • røllike – achillea millefolium – yarrow (Steen of Vorherres Køkkenhave used the flowers for snaps; the most common weed in Denmark)
  • fuglegræs – stellaria media – chickweed (Steen sautes in butter)
  • strandkarse – lepidium latifolium – pepperwort (very strong, reminiscent of horseradish)
  • løgkarse – alliaria petiolata – garlic mustard/Jack by the Hedge (Steen: a gift)
  • strandmælde – atriplex littoralis – grassleaf orache??
  • hvidtjørn – crataegus laevigata – hawthorn (Steen: use flowers in tea or wine)
  • kvan – angelica archangelica – angelica
  • spansk kørvel – myrrhis odorata – cicely (not to be confused with hundepersille or skarntyde)

I’m a bit of a halfhearted forager – the price and quality of herbs, fruit and vegetables in Denmark give the concept some appeal, but I tend to think there’s a reason why these plants haven’t been taken up by commercial retailers – yes you can eat the things, but would you want to? The Danish answer to Alan Titchmarsh, Søren Ryge Petersen, is also more than a little sceptical. In his review of Claus Meyer’s Naturalmanak (DK 249/£30, 312 pages), Søren says he has never been tempted to forage, not least because his kitchen garden offers more than enough provender. For him it’s all a bit Emperor’s New Clothes – it may be politically correct to eat local, but it takes time, both to gather enough to eat and to prepare something worth eating. He suggests there’s a reason why we started growing our own food rather than gathering it.

The Guardian’s beginner’s guide to summer foraging also attracted some barbed comments, such as “Surely this is more like ‘going into your garden and picking stuff’ than foraging?” The trend attracts a particular vintage style, illustrated in the admittedly rather lovely free Byhøst leaflet with pictures from Flora Danica. Of use in decoding Danish names was my Observer’s book of wild flowers 1963 edition (first printed 1937), inscribed ‘Gatehouse of Fleet 1964’ in my mother’s dashing hand on the flyleaf, with a six year old’s signature from my brother beneath. Which for some reason brings me in mind of butterscotch Instant Whip and frozen Steaklets. When’s all that coming back? (Update: Angel Delight is having a moment. And while we’re at, how about the Sainsbury Packaging Archive, also as book.)

Back in the garden, having spent the previous day digging up copious amounts of Jack by the Hedge I subsequently went a bit overboard looking for its garlicky mustardness, which however seemed a bit lacking. I also made some herb salt as an alternative salad dressing and have just strained a batch of fancy elderflower cordial. The Byhøst boys had jars of Arken pesto, named after the modern art gallery at Ishøj beach, for sale – tasty (and pricey) enough, given the benefit of a large number of additional non-foraged ingredients.

See more photos from the afternoon on Facebook, plus a dish made by one of the participants.

A further tour in September will look at the berries and fruit in the park. In the meantime, the new Byhøst app retails at DK 70 (£8), which feels on the pricey side, so we’ll stick to the map. An issue with this sort of crowdsourced data is that it needs periodical weeding to be useful.

In Denmark you can gather anything growing in a public space – just don’t break branches, dig up roots or take the last shoots (ensures something there for the next person and for next year). A lot of people worry about pollution, however we were assured that not much is taken up through the roots, and any nasties can be washed off  – use your common sense, and remember the Jyske Lov (1241):

Collect only as much as you can carry in your hat

Some books and blogs:

Update: a feature in Politiken on 21 June highlighted Trondheim resident Stephen Barstow’s Around the world in 80 plants, on eating such delights as Caucasian spinach (spinatranke), hostas and xtreme salads. Danish enthusiasts include Søren Holt on Amager, who blogs at In the toad’s garden (dansk) and Naturplanteskolen in Hedehusene, who sell seeds for dandelions. What a business concept!

Coming along on 29 June we had Claus Meyer with a riposte to Søren Ryge, foraging in our very own manor at Hvidovre Havn, where he found strandasters, strandmælde, spydmælde, røllike, vild kørvel, kvan, vild pastinak and forvildet peberrod (horseradish). We’ll have a look for the last next week.

His argument came down to “it’s free so you might as well”, which is a bit weak.

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