For a nation of peoples inhabiting an island with an abundance of coastline – from clean golden sun showered beaches of Cornwall to the cold deeper waters of the North Sea feeding the lochs of the highlands, with an abundance of fish, shellfish, seaweeds, crustaceans and edible plants, very few of us actually use this resource to our benefit.
Without delving too deep in to mankind’s history, archaeological finds clearly demonstrate that our primitive hunter gatherer predecessors established camps at various key coastal locations around the UK. The probability from excavations that the pickings where relatively easy (or at least easier) along the coastline compared to the vast woodlands that once covered our fair country suggest that life and death revolved around a continuous quest for an easy meal.
We are talking about an era where the bear, wolf and various other large mammals frequented and you were on their menu, as much as they on yours. Primitive man (and woman’s!) diet at these established camps mostly consisted of small mammals, seabirds, eggs, shellfish and nuts from the evidence discovered, but I have no doubt there was probably a vast knowledge of edible plant matter too, both for nutrient content and medicinal properties.
Putting hunting and fishing aside, I personally split the foraging cycle into three seasons, late winter into early summer for coastal greens, then on to mainland plants, fruits, nuts, berries and the third cycle predominantly wild mushrooms heading back in to coastal plants. There is always the exception as foraging contains an incredibly diverse spectrum of flora, but you get the idea.
The only time you will really struggle for wild food (non-animal based) is periods of long frost, but our ever increasing warmer/shorter winter at least has one positive in relation to foraging at least.
I don’t teach wild foods as such, it is something I have learned (and continue to do so) so I can pass on my knowledge to my children, and in turn when the time is right, they can do the same. We live in an era where carrots are judged by colour card and food stuffed with as many additives as manufacturers can literally squeeze in and as I have grown older, I tend to appreciate what food is and where it comes from a little more. I seldom buy supermarket meat or vegetables and prefer to source foods locally, and more so – seasonally.
There is something incredibly deep rooted within us when it comes to foraging and the simple act of hand to mouth feeding. I have on more than one occasion watched a group of rowdy adults regress into quiet and attentive students in a matter of minutes, from being outside of comfort zones to smiling at every overturned rock, laughing and switching out of this hustle & bustle mode we all have to endure to pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads.
Moral of the story – Foraging is good for the soul as well as the belly!
Back to wild food. There are very few plants along our coastline, compared to a woodland environment that will bring you to harm. I suggest you learn how to identify poison hemlock and hemlock water dropwort as I have found them in abundance along the salt marshes. I always say to people wishing to get in to foraging, learn the nasty stuff first and your margin of error is so much more reduced. That does not mean they do not have their place, just make sure it’s at distance and appreciate them for their beauty. Learn every feature of them and you will both build up healthy and mutual respect.
All seaweeds are edible to a degree, as are the various shellfish, shrimp, crabs etc and there are plenty of books on the subject – most foraging handbooks will have a broad selection of coastal wild foods in their pages as it is in such abundance.
Seaweeds for example are absolutely ram jammed with nutrients, trace elements, proteins, carbs and minerals and like any vegetable are better from early summer to late autumn with the odd exceptions like lava (Porphyra umbilicalis) that will need several hours cooking at any stage of the year before it starts to break down and become palatable, or rather digestible.
The first time I tried self-sourced and cooked lava bread (seaweed and oats fried in bacon fat) it was the simplest and most nutritious meal I can ever remember eating. Every mouthful was being digested as it hit home and a small bowl left me full and content for several hours. It is worth remembering with wild foods, especially plants and seaweeds that the nutrient content is far superior to anything you will but in the shops. A little goes a long way!
Don’t be afraid to hit the beach armed with a Wok, chilli and soy on the hunt for some nice tender serrated wrack (Fucus serratus) sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) or glass shrimp (palemon serratus) and start having some gastro related fun.
Just exercise a degree of common sense and research local major industry etc. As with all foraging, go for the cleanest and best condition foodstuffs you can find. It is also worth having a little read up on what spring and neap tides are. It is very easy to switch off when collecting wild foods and you can literally loose an hour in minutes so always be aware of where the tide is, which direction it is heading and at what speed.
If I can pass on a few words of wisdom I would highly recommend you study one plant, fruit, or foodstuff and learn everything about it. Habitat, season, taste, texture and cook it every way you can think of. If you only cover a handful of plants each year, within a reasonable timescale you will not only become a very competent forager, but a fantastic cook and that is what it is all about.
I would much rather spend my time around the campfire with someone that can cook a fantastic wild food related meal and have a good solid relationship with the ingredients – that is what food is about, the celebration of sharing in a social hub after a long and sometimes quite demanding day, as we have done for thousands of years.
There is no quick route to learning foraging, a methodical approach with practice and repetition is the key to success.
Books I can point you towards through no personal connection are Roger Phillips – Wild food, Roger Philips – Mushrooms, Richard Maybe – Food for free, Richard Maybe – Flora Britannica (because it’s just a stunning book on plans generally) John Wright’s Edible seashore and a copy of Wild flowers of Britain and Europe (a few authors) should cover most bases and the latter is handy to at least identify what you are looking at to start the research ball rolling.
There are hundreds of books on the subject but above are my personal favourites. A pocket digital camera always comes in handy too.
I wish you a pleasant journey and always remember, food is fun.