Forget rural River Cottage and the domestic goddess myth. I’ve met an urban shrub rummaging pioneer, who harvests wild food from the streets of south east London and transforms it into delicious jams and jellies. This article was first published in Metropolitan magazine
Peckham couldn’t be described as a posh part of town, and Penny Greenhough’s council flat is no palace. An unemployed single mum with a complicated past, she doesn’t fit neatly into the role of domestic goddess. But over the last six months she’s become the Peckham Pickler, an alchemist of sorts, foraging for wild fruits and nuts and transforming them into an array of truly local, homemade preserves. She’s both an inspiration and a rebel with a food themed cause.
“I try to work hard at something purposeful. I’m starting from absolutely nothing, with nothing and learning as I go. It’s labour intensive, but in a creative and therapeutic way. It’s been interesting, there’s suddenly so much interest in the subject. People seem to be getting down with the local, seasonal zeitgeist!”
Gleaming glass jars filled with a rainbow of thick jams and jellies line the surfaces of Penny’s small kitchen. Open a cupboard to reveal bottle upon bottle of syrup and sauce, all glinting in shafts of winter sun. Boxes stuffed with pots of chutney and relish sit stacked in a corner. Fruits and roots swell, submerged in vodka and gin, while toasted hazelnuts drown in honey and walnuts pickle slowly in vinegar. Fruit picking and preserving may not be typical urban pursuits, but Penny’s Peckham is an edible one and her home has become a tiny jam factory.
“Ten years ago I planted a cherry tree in my garden to mark the birth of my first child. This summer it produced over 50 kilos of fruit and I was spurred into action” explains Penny. One jam making session led to another, and suddenly she was seeing fruit picking and preserving opportunities everywhere. She spent the rest of the year scouring the streets and parks of south east London for free food that could be pickled or preserved into something new.
Penny has found and picked everything from apples and pears, to quinces, medlars and sloes. She’s harvested elderberries, angelica root and lime tree blossom. “You can make lime tree blossom tea to cure the collywobbles” she reveals. She took a ladder to Burgess Park this autumn, climbed a 30 foot high tree and harvested 100 kilos of plums. Such behaviour does attract attention, and she’s met with some opposition.
“I get the occasional odd look and disapproving comment, but most people like what I’m doing. I dream of a day when parks have communal fruit ladders and organise regular picking parties for residents. We bring most of our fruit into Peckham but we already have loads growing here. I haven’t bought any fruit since I started foraging, except for bananas.”
Penny’s love of “urban shrub rummaging” is infectious. She’s never short of picking companions and organises private pickling classes in her kitchen. This winter she’s helping neighbours plant fruit trees in their gardens, and has been invited to stock market stalls and pop-up shops. Seen through Penny’s eyes, Peckham is transformed into a market garden, although her reincarnation as the Peckham Pickler is as much about making friends as food.