A trip to the beach is all about getting gritty sand between our toes, filling our lungs with the smell of the sea air, and tasting the salty tang that blows in off the sea. Think of seaside food and our taste buds salivate at the mere thought of fish and chips, mushy peas, candyfloss, and sticks of rock. Yet the coastline can provide a far more interesting array of food, for those who are prepared to hunt it down. Prepare to tickle your taste buds… the natural way.
“Foraging for food, once you get hooked, is a compulsive hobby,” says Fiona Houston, co-author of Seaweed and Eat It (Virgin Books, ISBN: 9780753513415, £10.99). “Once, going for a walk was about exercise, now it’s about food. Foraging opens your eyes to what is growing around you, and gives a new appreciation of your environment. In a world increasingly interested in the provenance of food, foraging is the ultimate provenance – you know exactly where your food has come from, because you picked it yourself! Not only that, everything is fresh, organic and, in our credit crunched world – free!”
Whilst popping into the local supermarket means that food shopping is easy, safe and straightforward, when foraging for food in the wild, it’s important to have our wits about us. It’s not as simple as filling the car boot with as many seaside groceries as we can. Safety has to be an overriding factor, says Fiona. “Make sure the beach is clean. Don’t forage anywhere near power stations or obvious pollution.”
Fergus Drennan, known as Fergus the Forager, agrees. “Ask local water authorities, environment agencies and other relevant authorities about the local water quality. This is especially important if you want to eat seaweeds and shellfish on a regular basis. Seaweeds are incredibly nutritious because they absorb and concentrate nutrients direct from the surrounding water. Nevertheless, it is that same ability to absorb nutrients that can result in them absorbing pollutants.”
As well as checking the water quality, prospective foragers should consult the local landowner. Generally, if the beach has public access then personal foraging should be permissible, however, particularly at low tides, it’s easy to wander around the coastline onto private property, without realising.
One of the easier foods to forage for on our coastline is seaweed. “There are over 650 different varieties of seaweed to be found around the British coast,” says Fergus, “all edible except a few that will give you a nasty stomach ache. You should ALWAYS resist the temptation to eat any of it raw, straight from the sea, no matter how clean the water.”
Being armed with a good field guide is essential to ensure that you know what you are eating, but Fergus recommends several seaweeds for novices to hunt down, when you know what you are looking for. “Japweed, Carragheen, Dulse, Dabberlocks, Gut Weeds, Laver, Tangle Weed, Thong Weed, Wracks, Egg Wrack, and Sea Lettuce are just a few of the really good and easily identifiable seaweeds. Dulse is delicious eaten raw IF it is sun dried to a still pliable consistency first. Serrated or Toothed Wrack is excellent dried to a crisp and then broken up into small pieces and eaten like crisps.”
There are just as many different ways to cook seaweed, as there are varieties of seaweed. “The best method will depend upon the individual seaweed’s initial colour, texture, flavour and consistency,” says Fergus. “The delicious laver of Welsh laver bread fame takes hours to cook if, indeed, tasty laver bread is what you’re after. Then again, as a base for a soup, laver is fantastic. In this regard it only needs to be cut into varying sized pieces and boiled for about 30 minutes. However, given the variable cooking times for different seaweeds, for those coming to it for the first time, I’d recommend deep-frying in a wok of smoking hot oil on an open fire. Dangerous! Fun! Delicious! All seaweeds can be cooked to a crisp in this way in between 3 and 15 seconds!”
Of course, it isn’t just plants that can be found on the seashore, but a wealth of shellfish too. Limpets are plentiful and easy to identify by their cone shape, although they can be difficult to collect. One sharp blow should be enough to release them, however, if this fails, don’t make a second attempt. When they know they’re under attack, they cling on more fiercely! Similarly, don’t try to prise them off the rock, because you’ll only break the knife blade or tool that you are using.
The snail-like spiral conical shaped shell of winkles makes them easy to identify and are commonly found across our coastline. However, never empty a rock pool of winkles. Winkles won’t fill your stomach, so treat them as a minor ingredient to your meal. Winkle harvesting is regulated in some areas, and some regions have a minimum harvesting size. Check locally.
Mussels favour rocky shorelines and some believe their taste rivals that of the oyster! Again, never empty a rock pool of muscles and check that you’re taking them from a clean water area. Only take closed mussels and tap them to make sure that they remain closed. Shells that open are dead and unsafe to eat. Shore crabs are identified by their pointed back legs and are very common, although for some, the small amount of meat from them makes them more effort than they’re worth!
Finally, our experts offer some words of caution. “Only pick what you can use for your own consumption,” says Fiona. “If you pick anything more, you need a commercial pickers license.” Fergus suggests that foragers remember about the habitat too. “Foraging with respect, common sense and self-restraint is the best way to proceed. It’s also important not to view all wild foods purely in terms of their potential utility as human food. Make a point of learning about the other insects and animal species that form a web of dependency with individual plants. It’s a fascinating subject.”
To help you in your hunt for haute coastal cuisine this month, we’ve selected 3 seaside walks where you can comb the beaches for something tasty!
Route 1 – Rhosneigr, Anglesey – 3 miles – Easy
Start: Rhosneigr Library Car Park. Grid Ref: SH 318 730
OS Explorer Map – 262 (Anglesey West)
From Rhosneigr Library car park, follow the road back to the High Street and then turn left. Pass Harrison Drive on the right, then a chapel on the left. Take Old Post Office Lane on your left (beside post box), between houses, which eventually becomes a residential road. At junction, turn left, then right to climb gently, before dropping to main road. Cross over with care to take signed boardwalk path to Maelog Lake.
Follow boardwalk section as it meanders and undulates along the edge of the Lake to reach a platformed seating and viewing area. (route is accessible for pushchairs and wheelchairs to this point). Pass through a gate and continue along the lake edge. Fork right through a kissing gate, through a field to another kissing gate. Go through and follow path to another kissing gate. Once through, the path passes in front of a property, before climbing steps into the next field. This may contain horses. Continue along the path, through kissing gate and bear right to continue along the lake edge. Follow path through gorse into a field and climb gently to a kissing gate. Go through and bear right, heading for a footbridge.
Cross over gated footbridge and turn right to return along the other side of the lake. The path veers off to the left, through a kissing gate and then past a cottage to another kissing gate. Pass through and follow the water’s edge, continuing through one more kissing gate. At a stone track, turn right and follow this to the main road. Turn right, across bridge, then turn left as signed, beside post box, and follow tarmac lane towards properties. After entrance to caravan park on left, take small grass path on right towards dunes. Climb over dunes to reach beach.
For rock pool rummaging, bear left, but to continue the walk, turn right and follow beach, with plenty of seaweed available! At end of beach, climb up onto lane and follow this around to the right, eventually passing Chapel on your right, to then take lane on right back to car park.
Route 2 – Criccieth, 3.25 miles – Easy
Start: Esplanade Car Park. Grid Ref: SH 504 381
OS Explorer Map 254 (Lleyn Peninsula East)
From the car park, head straight onto the beach to explore the sands and rock pools here, and then when ready turn right to walk along the beach towards the castle mound. Just before the rocky outcrop of the castle, take the ramp leading back up onto the road and then turn left and follow this past some properties, bearing gently left. Once around the castle mound, continue along this road (Marine Terrace). Where the road bears right, away from the sea, continue ahead along the promenade with a small car park on your right.
At the end of the promenade, pass through a gate to follow the signed Lleyn coast path. Proceed along the edge of a field with the beach on your left, passing through into another field, where the path eventually widens into a track. Continue past a property on the right and follow the track towards another. Before you reach this, take a small path, which bears around to the right of this next property, and then after the cottage wall, turn left to continue along the signed coastal path.
The path drops briefly onto the beach, but soon after return back up to the right to pick up the path again, which runs parallel to a wider track to the right. Ignore the track as it bears off towards a farm on the right, and continue along the path, bearing gently left, where the path then becomes wider. Eventually, the path turns left to take you onto the beach near the mouth of the River Dwyfor. Turn left, and follow the beach all the way back to Criccieth, with plenty more seaweed and rock pool exploring opportunities.
Route 3 – Aberdaron, 2.75 miles, Moderate
Start: Main Car Park beside the mouth of the River Daron. Grid Ref: SH 172 264
OS Explorer Map 253 (Lleyn Peninsula West)
From the car park, return to the road and then turn left before the bridge, bearing left again to follow the main road uphill, out of Aberdaron. Ignore first path on left, but take the next signed path on the left, opposite the entrance to a campsite. Drop down this track, passing between 2 cottages and then bear round to the right. Turn left to cross over a stream, entering National Trust land.
Follow the path around to the left, but don’t take the path down to the beach. Instead, continue ahead, to follow the cliff top path, with the sea on your left. Follow this, passing a small ruin on your right. This path offers good views to the left of the rock pools and beach area of Aberdaron. Pass through two kissing gates, before zigzagging down to the beach at Porth Meudwy, popular for launching boats, and worth exploring.
From here, turn right and follow the main, wide track, back up through this valley. Ignore any side tracks, and follow it around to the right where it is later joined by another track just before reaching a tarmac lane. Turn right here and follow this past a farm on your left, eventually reaching a junction with another lane. Turn right here and then right again at the next junction. This road descends to pass the path taken earlier, now on your right, opposite the campsite. Continue along this road back to the car park.
Foraging Fact File
1. Avoid foraging when there’s an ‘R’ in the month. It’s an old adage, but a useful guideline.
2. Always clean shellfish in well aerated, salted water for a few hours to ensure that they are safe.
3. Always cook shellfish thoroughly before eating.
4. If you’re unsure about whether anything is safe to eat it – then don’t.
5. If you suffer from Thyroid problems, consult your doctor before eating seaweed – it’s high iron and iodine properties can affect this gland.
6. Be aware of the sea at all times. Don’t get so engrossed in foraging in rock pools that you let the tide cut you off.
Foraging Guide Books
1. Seaweed and Eat It, by Xa Milne and Fiona Houston. ISBN: 9780753513415. £10.99
2. Wild Food, by Jane Eastoe. ISBN: 9781905400591. £6.99
3. Edible Seashore: River Cottage Handbook No. 5, by John Wright. ISBN: 9780747595311. £14.99
Like the idea of savouring seafood but don’t like the uncertainty of identifying whether it is safe to eat? Seek out a seafood festival then and enjoy the produce.
Anglesey Oyster & Welsh Produce Festival
10th & 11th October 2009, Trearddur Bay Hotel, Lon Isallt, Trearddur Bay, Isle of Anglesey, LL65 2UN, Tel: 01407 860301
Look out for the National Seafood Fortnight held in September, with events taking place across the country. For more information visit www.seafish.org/2aweek/.
Food Festival – Penrhyn Castle, 22nd August 2009. High quality local seasonal produce available at this National Trust property from 11am. (Normal property admission prices apply.) www.nationaltrust.org.uk
© Simon Whaley