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Dinner gone wild

Why pay an arm and a leg for local, organic produce when you can get it for free? The streets and forests of Berlin and Brandenburg are teeming with bounty... if you know where to look.

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Photo by Tom Cox

Why pay an arm and a leg for local, organic produce when you can get it for free? The streets and forests of Berlin and Brandenburg are teeming with bounty… if you know where to look.

Cycling through an overcast car park in the eastern suburb of Hellersdorf, peering into the unremarkable trees lining the cement, doesn’t exactly seem like the most efficient way to make a fruit salad. But this bike tour, a two-hour Sunday jaunt through the neglected foliage of Berlin’s far east, has set out to prove Mundraub’s motto: “The city is your garden.”

Founded in 2009, the Berlin-based non-profit draws together urban foragers’ finds on a virtual world map plotting some 30,000 locations of fruits, nuts and herbs. Its most active community is, of course, in Berlin, with over 3100 trees, bushes and patches ripe for the plucking. Magda Zahn, 39, the red-headed Mundraub project manager and tour guide, is here to help us discover them.

“When I ride my bike through Berlin I always see something to eat,” she explains. Zahn runs the German tours, with English translation, two to three times a month in summer and autumn for €15 (€7 children). Today’s 12-strong crew ranges from a dreadlocked student to a family with young kids.

The innocuous green leaves dividing the modern blocks from the busy road shelter cherries. Some of the knuckle-sized fruits are a sweet, sun-fattened crimson, others paler and tart. “Plants in nature have more taste as they have more stuff in there,” claims Zahn. “They need to protect against the sun, animals and the wind, so they’re smaller but more intense.” She herself forages for at least one plant daily, the amount varying seasonally. Throughout the year she makes fruit jam for breakfast, pesto for lunch, cordial in the afternoon and leaf salad for dinner.

Zahn wields a two-metre stick for plundering the pockets of higher branches. Hazelnut trees, with unripe nuts, fringe the car park. Their height and resilience to pollution have made them a favourite of developers; they grow in Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg. Zahn also spies juneberries, ruby raisins with furry crowns, on a bush. They have a bursting tang like cola sweets.

Leaving the roads for the countryside fringing the Berlin-Brandenburg border, a nearby bush offers splayed cream fronds. Elderflowers – aka Holunder – also grow in more central areas, but Zahn explains they’re better to eat here as exhaust fumes can soak into their structures. In general, though, most foraged fruit is safe: street pollution does contaminate soil, but a 2001 ISHS study showed that roots don’t absorb toxicities. Indeed, the produce should even be organic, since chemical pesticides and fertilisers are rarely used on urban trees.

Founder and head of the project, Kai Gildhorn, 44, was struck by the idea for Mundraub while kayaking with some friends seven years ago. They were eating a packed lunch, including bananas and orange juice… while surrounded by wild-growing pears. “It was kind of ridiculous – we had fresh fruit all around us and we had food from abroad that we’d paid for,” Gildhorn says.

As well as harbouring a passion for local fructose, Gildhorn, who has a background in environmental engineer- ing, forages for the pleasure of being outdoors. “The for-aging genes are still inside us – it’s so human. Every time I speak to people after foraging, they’re always happier.”

He named his project Mundraub (“mouth robbery”) in a tongue-in-cheek reference to a two-century-old German law allowing “stealing” from public trees for personal consumption. And yes, anything growing on public property is fair game for urban foragers, as long as it’s only in small amounts for personal consumption. The cherry-loving king Frederick the Great even encouraged it, planting thousands of trees in Berlin to ensure his passing soldiers had food. In its own version of this, Mundraub is working with the district of Prenzlauer Berg to replace some of its oaks with apple trees, making it an “edible district”.

Though Gildhorn’s user-powered map is a good guide, it’s not a comprehensive one. Zahn says she discovers new trees on every tour. The markers also stay up when a fruit or herb is out of season, so there’s a chance that the tempting-looking blackberry bush will be unripe or barren. And some more seasoned foragers – particularly mushroom aficionados – don’t want their secret spots publicised.

Like trees, the website is seasonal, bearing the heaviest fruit in autumn with seven times more unique visitors than winter’s daily 1000. This is when apples, the most popular marker, have ripened, and pears, apricots, raspberries, walnuts and chestnuts begin falling to the ground. 

Berlin’s wild bounty pales in comparison to Brandenburg’s, where carrots, spinach and prized chanterelle and morel mushrooms abound. And nobody knows that landscape better than 30-year-old Jonathan Hamnett of Grunewald Foraging. He came over from Manchester, UK six years ago to work at Berlin’s Prinzessinnengarten. “I realised that as a garden centre worker I knew plants from all over the world, but not the local wild ones.” A year or so of hands-on research later, he began leading introductory foraging day trips into the Brandenburg woods. Then there are his three-day bi-monthly “Wildcamps” (€100), which require little more than a tent, a bowl and some cutlery (phones and energy bars are discouraged). A group of up to 15 hike five kilometres from Rheinsberg to cook and eat almost entirely foraged food, dipping into the experience of being an actual hunter-gatherer.

Foraging, says Hamnett, puts him in a kind of meditative state. “Being immersed in something so much, you experience yourself in a new way. With foraging you start to reawaken faculties. All the other concerns fall away. We’ve been doing it for the longest part of human his- tory, so the body takes over.”

But instincts aren’t all you need for successful foraging. Knowledge is crucial, especially when it comes to the 5000 species of mushroom that grow in Germany. Last September, there was a spike in mushroom poisonings – 40 cases in two weeks – attributed to refugees who mistook deadly fungi for edible lookalikes. Amanita phalloides, or “death cap”, resembles Amanita ovioides, an edible mushroom species that grows in the Middle East, but one bite could kill you outright.

“Anybody can do it completely safely as long as they go slowly with the process,” Hamnett says, “which means getting to know plants intimately.” To ensure safe mushroom eating, the environmental service BUND runs a free consultancy service in Schöneberg on Sundays in autumn. “If you don’t have someone to verify what you’re gonna eat, then spend a lot of time with it. Spend your first season photographing the stuff, make herbarium specimens.”

With great responsibility comes great power: a forager can strip a species from an area by bagging too much of one type. Leslie Kuo, Berlin-based co-creator of the foraging blog Urban Plant Research, warns: “Overeager hipsters jumping on the foraging bandwagon have already stripped the parks and woods of California’s Bay Area. I would hate to see that happen to Berlin. You need to learn how to tread lightly, leave no trace, and leave enough for the plants to easily regenerate.”

If you skip the death cap, foragers claim hardy wild food is more nutritious than organic from having survived without farming nurture. Though this is unproven, Hamnett swears by it. “Foraged food is more bitter, but the bitterness is an overflow of antioxidants, which drastically changes most organ functions,” he claims. “I noticed a distinct difference in wakefulness, attention and how my stomach’s feeling.” Some plants are also believed to have medicinal effects. Hamnett has suffered from chronic dermatitis his whole life, for which prescribed cortisone did nothing. He says milling the oil from evening primrose found in meadows, with its omega-3 fatty acids, cured him.

Perhaps foraging’s greatest benefit is the freedom from supermarkets, in a country where just one-fifth of fruit sold is locally sourced. Germany spends the second most in the world on organic foods, €7.6 billion in 2013. Berliners could grab some of these right in their backyards for free.

Most of those overgrown railings on the Neukölln canal are full of goji berries.

Says Hamnett: “Rocket gets sold in tiny quantities on plastic trays in markets, which is ridiculous.” It’s common on countryside tracks. “Treptower Park is full of wild garlic. You could use a lawnmower to harvest it. Most of those overgrown railings on the Neukölln canal are full of goji berries. There’s a lot of sea buckthorn.”

It’s illegal to sell foraged food without a licence. “Regional food” at Berlin restaurants and supper clubs will usually be from local farms or self-grown. To work around this, Linda Lezius, a 26-year-old former textile designer and foraging enthusiast who likes to pick nettles around Bergmannkiez (see recipe), started the bi-monthly supper series Wild & Root in 2014 to simulate foraging for plants in an artsy dinner party setting – no dirty fingernails necessary.

On a Thursday evening in Neumanns café off Boxhagener Platz, an international crowd of around 30 sit at a long table. Sausages are suspended from the ceiling by elastic above. The tables are festooned with carrots, spring onions, and beetroots from local farms, the soil still clinging to them. There is a small mountain of cucumbers, and bricks of cress sprout on one wall. The idea is “synthesized foraging”: you have to earn your €35 supper.

Lezius says: “Nothing is ready to eat. There is always one step that you as a guest have to do. We wanted to find a way to create more awareness – of the potential of the plants, and where they come from. It’s about getting back to your flavour.” Though verging on twee, the food is delicious, and the process a magnificent ice-breaker.

The act of foraging triggers memories of berry-stained palms in youth; Lezius, Gilhorn, Zahn and Hamnett all spoke of ransacking foliage as children. It also rouses a dormant human instinct. Whether one forages to be outside, for the flavours or to reduce imports, there is always a simple urge to feed. And it’s just fun. As Hamnett says: “There’s something I love about snuffling along the ground eating hazelnuts and being a bit weird.”

Originally published in issue #151, July/August 2016.