Eating Weeds

It turns out parsley wasn’t the only edible thing sprouting in our back laneway. After a little research and careful identification I located a number of weeds with various uses in the kitchen. I was a little sceptical too at first but stay with me here; nobody wants to ruin their dinner by including something growing out of cracks in the concrete.

As Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland note in The Weed Forager’s Handbook, weeds are the original convenience food; no need to plant or water, let alone place a delivery order. Their practical guide assists with accessing this low-impact fare safely and joyously: avoid poisonous plants, areas that might have been sprayed, and delight in the pleasure of collecting. In the book’s Forward, long-time weed ingester of Greek heritage, Costa Georgiadis described family trips where aunts and grandmothers would pick weeds alongside the road then to turn them into tasty and nutritious pies; like spinach pies… but weed pies. Genius.

There are many books that will help identify the edible and medicinal weeds in your area. Look for large colourful pictures then head to your nearest abandoned block or park. One of the best tips I’ve come across is to pick the fresh young growth at the bottom of the plant to avoid fibrous bits and enjoy the juiciest, mildest flavours.

Cooking with Amaranth

This ancient food has been used for over 8,000 years and was a staple for the Aztecs. I recently purchased Amaranth seeds from a health food shop after reading they contain four times as much calcium as quinoa and even more than milk! I used them to make this Mexican style amaranth stew with black beans and avocado, which was a big hit in our house.

What I didn’t know is you can also eat the leaves of the green Amaranth plant: a common weed in Melbourne that happens to flourish in our back laneway! The leaves are said to be equally as nutritious as the grain—containing potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, vitamin A and folate—with the versatility of baby spinach. I tried a couple of leaves raw and they had a strong ‘green’ taste, like a super-green smoothie. Cooked down in a curry the flavour became much more subtle and dare I say, delicious. My boyfriend and connoisseur-cat were both very happy with this meal too. I didn’t go as far as trying to collect Amaranth seeds to cook with, as this would have taken hours and required additional foraging further afield.  

What else have we got? Here are some other edible weeds found growing in the laneway:   

Nettle

I have only photographed this one so far. I believe it’s possible to pick with gloves on then disarm the stinging leaves by blanching them in hot water. High in protein, antioxidants and calcium, nettles were sold as a green vegetable in 18th century English markets and are used in traditional Greek and Italian cooking. The leaves can be cooked into soups, pasta sauces and pies, or steeped in boiling water to make tea.

Mallow

Young mallow can be seen popping up all over our laneway and is the next weed I’m going to try. It is world renowned as a gastrointestinal and anti-inflammatory herb. It can be make into a soothing tea, blended into a green juice or used fresh in a salad. It has long been considered a delicacy by the Romans and is eaten throughout the Mediterranean, Northern Africa and China.

Dandelion

Dandelion reminds me of my childhood. Its yellow flowers and parachute seed-pods spread across the football oval near our family home in rural New South Wales. My Dad, who grew up near Manchester in the North of England, spoke fondly of dandelion and burdock soda, a fermented drink made from the roots of those two ingredients. I have never tried to make anything with dandelion myself but intend to include some of the yellow petals in a simple Greek salad. All parts are edible; the leaves can be sautéed and match well with root vegetables. The roots can be slowly roasted until they are dark brown, then ground and used as a coffee alternative.

Slowing Down and Paying Attention

‘Feel less anxious about taking time just to be.’ At the time I wrote that note to myself in my iPhone I was pretty close to burnout and was losing my vitality bit by bit. My identity was so caught-up with my work that I couldn’t easily separate from it. I wanted to feel excited again when one of my best-friends invited me over, not burdened by social engagements or stretched too thin across artist dinners and exhibition openings. I was becoming less effective in all areas; not only was I struggling to listen to and connect with those closest to me I was also having trouble staying focused and thinking clearly. I wasn’t sleeping well and when I lay down at night I could feel the blood pumping around my body with a ferocious energy. I was desperate to take some of the pressure off but knew it wasn’t going to be as simple as just resting.

That was almost two years ago and a lot has changed since then. It’s been a process of simplifying and cutting out the excess; realising that my time, energy and finances are limited recourses that need to be allocated wisely. I needed to re-evaluate the things I deemed most important and learn to politely decline periphery invitations and opportunities. By removing some of the busy-ness I have been able to think about what an intentional life might look like, and work towards living in alignment with my values. Actually, until this point I hadn’t given much thought to what my values might be. What I came up with were three quite broad ideas: kindness (to myself, the environment and living beings we share it with), health (mental, physical and financial wellbeing) and openness (to change, new perspectives and adventures; communicating openly and honestly; learning; listening and loving with an open heart).

My one-bedroom apartment, which I never used to spend that much time in, has since become a place of sanctuary, somewhere to recharge and just be. The gears did grind a bit at the start… but the more I said no, the more comfortable I became going slower. I started to take time for activities that made the apartment more enjoyable to be in, like clearing away clutter, cooking vegan recipes from scratch and making my own laundry liquid; with more time on my hands ‘convenience’ became less of an important factor in my decision making. Getting back to the basics led to new feelings of contentment.      

Naturally, this slower pace and interest in living simply stayed with me when I left the apartment. Instead of rushing out the door and off to work each morning I began to spend some time looking around our back laneway. The drawings you see in these first posts are a result of a new daily ritual: picking up whatever rubbish was in the laneway each-morning and sketching one of the pieces before throwing it all away. I’m not sure yet where this blog or my relationship with our unassuming back laneway is headed, but I feel like it’s an important part of the journey towards a rich and fulfilling life.  

Bluestone Just Below the Surface

While picking up trash, one of the first things that struck me about our laneway was the multi-layered ground, with heavy bluestone pavers covered in bitumen. Melburnians know and love bluestone. It’s hard to imagine any council sending out their asphalt foremen to re-surface one of our inner-city bluestone laneways today. It’s a celebrated part of our urban heritage and many of our iconic buildings are clad in it, from The National Gallery of Victoria to the Pentridge Prison. It is believed that Ned Kelly, the infamous bushranger, worked as a labourer at a bluestone quarry nearby here in the inner west.

Bluestone got its mainstream popularity around the time of the great Australian gold-rush, when Melbourne’s population boomed and the city had to expand rapidly to keep up. As a building material bluestone was strong, and in strong supply; the city was built on one of the largest volcanic basalt plains in the world. Indigenous Australians had been using bluestone for over 6600 years, which we can see evidence of at Lake Condah—about 320km west of Melbourne—in the sophisticated stone-walled eel-trap systems, built by the Gunditjmara people to ensure year-round supply of eels as a food source. Bluestone was used by the settlers to resemble the cobbles of English streets. In the Victorian era they would have sent the nightsoil carts down these bluestone back laneways to pick up the crap (literally) from the rear of the properties.

In the lead up to the 1956 Olympic Games many of the city’s bluestone laneways were covered with bitumen. The bluestone pitches, laid using a hammer and chisel, would have been fairly expensive to maintain—not to mention bumpy to cycle over and tricky to walk on in high-heels. Some of these laneways have been rebuilt by the city, the asphalt cleaned off and the original bluestones relayed where possible with others brought in as required. Our laneway mustn’t have qualified for that type of restoration. I’m actually not sure if any in this area would have unfortunately.

It’s quite beautiful to see bluestone making an appearance in our laneway. Not to be forgotten, it peeks out from crevices along fence-lines, in brick like patterns. It’s visible in large patches where the asphalt has been completely worn away by delivery vehicles. In other areas, there are cracks emerging in the bitumen in the shape of its cobbles: markings that tell us about a history that lies just below the surface. This morning it was raining and water has pooled in the laneway’s deeper ditches. The bluestone glistens from deep within the puddles and leaves both float and reflect on top.   

Further (Holiday) Reading

Museum’s Victoria Collections, Bluestone Paving at the Newmarket Saleyards 

Just down the road from here, Australia’s largest outdoor saleyard was paved in bluestone in 1858. The gaps in the bluestone offered automatic drainage for the cattle’s excrement and provided a nice surface for their hooves to grip. 

The Conversation, The detective work behind the Budj Bim eel traps World Heritage bid, February 8, 2017, Ian J. McNiven 

A really interesting article by Ian J. McNiven, Professor of Indigenous Archaeology at Monash University, about how the Gunditjmara have successfully overturned traditional representations of their people as simple hunter-gatherers. The stone traps and channels are presented as an example of Aboriginal environmental management that blurs the distinction between foragers and farmers.

Bluestone and the City: Writing an Emotional History, Stephanie Trigg

Stephanie Trigg, Humanities Researcher at The University of Melbourne, writes about Melbourne’s passionate relationship with bluestone. She also has a wonderful blog to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria.

The Seed of an Idea

Coming home one day, I noticed a small parsley plant had taken root beside the back gate to our apartment building. It was the flat leaf variety. Its delicious green sprigs caught my attention as they poked out from behind some obnoxious looking weeds. It was the beginning of spring and a neighbour’s balcony one floor up was full of burgeoning potted herbs. A seed must have blown down some 4-6 weeks earlier and found a new home amongst the weeds in our back laneway—jackpot.

As well as being home to a large variety of weeds, this unnamed and often overlooked laneway was full of rubbish. A black leather couch, a massage table and a child’s bike had been dumped there; the couch and its cushions waterlogged and covered in bird poo. The pile of hard rubbish had become an easy spot for people to throw their daily trash, like empty fast-food wrappers. Other scraps spilled out of the semi-enclosed bin areas at the backs of the shops. Plastic bottles with sun bleached labels rolled around on the hot bitumen. Drink cartons had made their way into patches dirt, their lower-halves-buried, with a few roley-poley slaters living happily underneath.

A few nights per week I would stop to pick some parsley and give the plant a little drink from my water bottle in return. I had become attached to the free supply and its fresh flavour. I loved seeing how well it was doing in this inhospitable environment and had started entering our apartment via the back laneway rather than through the front door on the main shopping strip.

It wasn’t long before the parsley went to seed. In an effort to do something about the situation I donned some rubber gloves from the kitchen and found a small hand-held spade. I did my best to dig out the roots of the weeds with the intention of creating space for the parsley to spread its seeds. The ground was very rocky with lots of small pieces of concrete buried just below the surface. The rocks made it hard to dig but also provided material for a decorative border to this new garden bed.

My work must have drawn attention to the presence of that parsley plant and within a short time it was gone. All that was left was a small hole in the ground from its trunk, a completely empty patch of dirt and a scattering of rocks. I still wonder what happened to it. Did someone take it for his or her own herb garden? Did they mistake it for a weed and decide to finish the job on my behalf? Was it an act of vandalism? I’ll probably never find out.

While undertaking this potentially pointless amateur gardening I had an overwhelming urge to start cleaning up the rubbish. For someone who is reasonably busy and doesn’t particularly like cleaning her own bathroom this feeling was new to me, but I followed my instinct. I collected two giant bags of litter and arranged for the hard rubbish to be dragged out onto the main street. I felt satisfied with my work but aware this might not be a one-time-only job.

I had spent only a short time working in the laneway but had started to tune into its happenings. I had seen a new kind of orange beetle mating. The act of picking up rubbish cleared my mind and I began to notice things—like the perfectly-formed, puffy cumulus clouds that punctuated the sky above. In that moment the idea to dedicate some time each morning to picking up rubbish and documenting the process came to me; almost like it too had blown down from the upstairs balcony and firmly planted itself in my mind. 

That’s how The Laneway Project got started. Welcome.