I've always been interested in the lost art of foraging - the acquisition of food by hunting and gathering plants from nature, in short, the way our ancestors fed themselves. In recent years, foraging has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, having been embraced by celebrity chefs and restaurants (such as the Norweigan restaurant Noma) offering foraged foods as part of their Michelin-starred menu. As with all niche activities, there is an engaged community of foragers with certain 'wild food experts' offering foraging courses online. One such was the rather interesting sounding Edible Seashore Foraging Course.
The surrounding coastline, abundant with edible plants
On its website, the course claimed to evoke "memories of childhood and carefree days, when responsibilities were the domain of 'adults', and the freedom to play, laugh and live a joyous existence was uncluttered with 'modern living..." Seduced by such a promise, I booked two places, one for me and one for my dad, with whom I have already enjoyed one foraging course before.
Taking place on the scenic south Devon coast, Edible Seashore took the form of a six hour ramble along the scrubland next to the shore, on the beach and even through rock pools. Dad and I made a weekend of it driving in from London and staying at the Masons Arms the night before. We were emailed intriguing instructions in advance with a list of things to bring, including: camera, notepad, pencil, pen, 'bum cushion', pen knife, scissors and 'gathering bags'.
When the appointed day arrived, we met at Lime Kiln car park in Budleigh Salterton. Although there was some confusion as to which car park exactly we were supposed to meet (the Google map on the instructions led to another cap park 20 mins away), I managed to contact the course leader who clarified exactly where we should go. I was a little surprised that he answered his phone, given that he is clearly someone who spends a lot of his time out foraging in the woods and not next to his mobile.
The charismatic Robin led us in the art of foraging
The course was facilitated by Robin Harford, the UK's number one 'professional forager' and something of a celebrity in this field. Although you wouldn't know it by his down-to-earth demeanour, Robin has been recommended by the BBC Good Food Magazine, The Guardian, The Lady, Sainsbury's Magazine, GQ, TV and radio. He has also taught at Eden Project and featured on BBC2's Edwardian Farm. In his foraging courses, Robin teaches people how to go back into nature, to identify and embrace plants, how to pick, prepare and eat them.
After we'd met with the other foragers in the car park (easy to spot, wearing their rambling outfits and hats), we began with an icebreaker exercise standing in a circle. Robin and his co-facilitator Chris (who also runs his own workshops) asked us to look around at what was in nature and bring something back to represent us to share with the group. At this point, I was a little worried that the day might get a little bit hippy dippy for my 60-something year old father, but he relished the challenge and raced off to find something. I found a spiky purple flower amidst some green leaves and shared with the group that I liked it for it's colour, lightness and brightness and the fact that it stood out. I also liked that the beauty had a sharp, spikiness to it, just as in all of us, there is beauty and darkness.
After the ice breaking session was over we were off, beginning with fern-like fronds in the bushes around us, a plant which Robin identified as tansy. According to Robin, tansy contains the same chemical as that in yarrow and wormwood (which is in absinthe). This gives it a slightly aniseed flavour, which is great to give a 'lift' to foods such as soufflés or egg based dishes. Robin suggested that in medieval times people used to lay tansy over cheeses and meats to use as a natural insecticide.
Robin encouraged us to form our own relationship with the plants - to touch them and to smell them - before putting them in our mouths. He believes that our own intuition will tell us whether or not we will like or dislike a plant. At first I didn't like the tansy (I'm not a big fan of aniseed) but it grew on me and I realised that it would taste rather good in an omelette.
Next we moved our attention to the grassy patch on which we were standing and Chris pointed out the tall grass-like plants with a mini brown bullrush on the end that looks like a mini sweetcorn. This, he explained, was Lancelot Plantain, a plant that grows naturally in abundance in the UK. I must have seen this plant without knowing what it is a thousand times before, and it was a bit shocking to watch Chris pop it into his mouth and chew on the unappetising-looking brown bit at the end. But.. I dived in and did it myself. Within a couple of seconds I found myself chowing down on what tasted like a very flavoursome woody and mushroomy plant.
Robin suggested that this tastes good in a risotto and I can believe that. In an overzealous attempt at plucking my purple spiky flower, I had incurred some bad nettle stings. Robin shredded a handful of young Lancelot Plantain leaves and squeezed them in his hand until he extracted the juice. He poured it over my raised, angry, red nettles stings which disappeared almost immediately. "Much better than a dock leaf," he grinned.
The next plant that Robin pointed out was Alexander - and we hadn't even moved from the point at which we had started. I began to realise that, if you know what you are looking for, nature has an absolute abundance of edible plants and those bushes and hedgerows that we pass every single day contain a multitude of things that we can eat. He told us that Alexander is a precursor to celery and a member of the carrot family. One of his tips for this plant was to harvest the tiny dot shaped seeds at the end and to put into a salt cellar along with salt crystals, to create an Indian style spice mix or combine them with mustard seeds for added flavour. Alexander is known as the 'myrrh plant' and has a bitter root that can be boiled up in milk to create soups and stock. Apparently you can also slice up the leaves very finely and add to salads.
Mustard leaves were growing within a few feet and this is where I had to follow my intuition and desist. They were ridiculously strong with a wasabi flavour (which I do not like at all). The group was polarised on this one - my dad enjoyed it whist a fellow forager was reduced to a coughing and spluttering fit after a mouthful.
As we meandered along, Robin delivered his sacred plant knowledge in a charismatic way, peppering his narrative with political references. He believes that plants have their own special energy and medicine, which disappears when they are grown commercially. Plants, he said, have their own lives, they don't want to be slaves - when we pick them we should do so with honour and gratitude and handle the leaves and the stems as tenderly as we would a lover. He talked about the high density of nutrients in wild food and how this gives them such great flavour, that we don't need to eat in vast quantities. He pointed to the ancient cultures who feasted on tapas, or mezze, many small dishes of different varieties of flavour. This is in contrast to 'monoculture' where a lot is grown of a little and we eat large meals based only a few, bland ingredients.
Robin discussed the effect that eating wild plants has on the inner realm - the "imaginarium", he called it. When we feed ourselves with wild food, we are fuelling our own inner creativity. I don't know if everyone would believe or buy into Robin's theories but I thought that his special brand of passionate rhetoric and eloquent oration made the day enjoyable to me, as well as informative and thought-provoking. I also felt that the wild foods I had imbibed did flare up my imagination and I certainly felt fuller after eating less amounts than I would usually.
Onwards, closer to the seashore we went. Crouching low in the salty marshland, Chris and Robin introduced us to Sea Purlsane, perhaps my favourite plant of the day. Apparently this is from the same family as quinoa and the flowers and seeds are edible as well as the leaves The Sea Purslane makes a beautiful pesto (to which I can testify, having made it with the leaves that I took home.) Sea Purslane grows very low to the ground and absorbs the minerals and nutrients of the salt water, with the resultant effect that it taste like nature's salt and vinegar crisps. It was very difficult to stop myself from munching away as I gathered leaves for our evening meal and stuffed them into the ziplock bags.
Growing within the same sea watery patch as the Sea Purslane were tiny sprouts of Samphire, a more well-known delicacy and one that can fetch quite a bit of money for professional foragers who sell their spoils to restaurants. Apparently the traditional name of Samphire is Glasswort. Just further back on the grassier area, Chris pointed out Arrow Grass and Sea Plantain. The group gathered lots of these plants for the meal that we would cook together in the evening.
As the day advanced, so did our walk, taking us wading into the water and foraging through rock pools. The obvious foraging candidate here was seaweed and Robin and Chris pointed out several different types, including Welsh Lava Bread, Intestinales (green sea lettuce), Dulse (brown flat seaweed) and Tooth Racks (which look like rows of little teeth). Robin taught us that, unlike with any other plant, seaweed grows back to front, necessitating that you discard the tips when you pluck them as this is the oldest growth. Instead the area close to the 'holdfast' (the bit that sticks to the rock) is the best bit to pluck - the middle section of the weed. You should always gather living seaweed that is held onto a rock, rather than drift weed.
We rounded off our rock pool adventure with foraging for shellfish. Chris showed us how to take a blunt, round rock and deliver a swift blow to a limpet (the shell barnacles that are attached to the larger rocks). When you have removed the limpet you can cut out the inside. Chris supplied a sharp knife for the purpose and a fresh lemon to squeeze onto the shellfish to give it flavour. I ate it, a bit of a brave move I thought. It wasn't quite as enjoyable as an oyster, though, it was much more tough and chewy.
The perfect day ended with us setting up camp on a small, idyllic cove, which we had to ourselves. Chris instructed us to gather kindling from the beach and he lit a fire by rubbing to ether a and stone.
Meanwhile, Robin prepared the meal - and what a meal it was. It was an absolute feast comprising nettles deep friend in tempura batter made from chickpea flour, risotto of Dulse, Sea Lettuce, Sea Aster and Sea Plantain, salads of tomato and sea Purslane, pesto made from sea atsre sea purslane, walnuts, parmesan and lemon juice. We also had three cornered leek flowers and Robin had brought with him some delightful home made salad dressings of magnoia flowers and raspberry. We ate our delicious meal sitting on the shore, in the fresh sea air, taking in the azure blue of the Devon waters. Afterwards, we reflected on just how much we had learned and how we will now forever go forward into nature with a greater appreciation for the abundance of plant life around us, which can sustain us, nourish us and taste wonderful too.
Enjoying the campfire cook up with new foraging friends