Summer has come and the tender roots, shoots, leaves and flowers have dimished or become course, bitter or just plain tough. This signals us to move our hunting and gathering ground to a more bountiful place: the coast.
For the summer months there is no finer place to de-camp and live: where the hot weather is tempered by cooling wind and water. The tidal margins and intertidal zone offer rich and easy pickings for the hunter and the gatherer today as much as it did ten millennia ago.
Yesterday I ventured to the South Devon Coast to see what I could forage. The area above high water-mark offers a rich habitat of flowering plants, whilst the interdal zone gifts seaweeds, crustaceans and shellfish. Slightly beyond low water is teaming with fish of many kinds. You don’t have to go far for a meal.
For this excursion I focussed on the intertidal zone with its rock pools and lower tidal margin where I could wade. In the space of an hour I had collected four decent sized spider crabs, a couple of pints of prawns, a handful of dog whelks, a small bag of limpets and several kilos of various seaweed. Enough food to last me several days. The only equipment I used was a small child’s net to catch the prawns.
These are so much of a delicacy in France and Spain that most of it gets exported and we never get to see them in the fishmonger. However it is possible to find these extraordinary crabs quite easily – no more so than in late spring and early summer as they move from their home in deeper water into the sandy, seaweedy shallows. If conditions are right then at low tide you can collect dozens of them just by wading around and feeling amongst the seaweed at the rocky edges of a sandy bay. There is a legal size of 12 cms for females and 13 cms for males (from the back of the shell to its front) and it is easy to tell them a part because the males have a narrow abdominal flap on their underside and the females have one which is more bulbous and is as broad as their abdomen. Funnily enough, I have found the best eating ones to be those with the shabbiest, most ‘kicked’ about with various things growing on the shells – maybe because these are the most mature and have not gone to the effort of moulting yet. They might not have as much meat in as other species of crab but the flavour is sublime.
A rather lucky bi-product of rock-pooling at low tide is to take a childrens net and run it through the seaweed around the edge of rock-pools – often you will catch the prawns that are hiding there. I find the warm summer months from May- August good months to catch them and they get bigger and better towards September. Boil them in their own seawater for a few minutes and enjoy some of the sweetest meat you will ever taste!
Dog whelks are smaller than whelks, about the size of winkles but are usually whiter/paler and have a little groove at the base of their opening where their drill-like proboscus emerges to drill holes in mussels. They might be carnivores but they are just as tasty as their grazing cousins. Dog Whelks can be found on rocks – near mussels and barnacles they hunt. Best to harvest moderately otherwise you can damage their populations and as they feed on filter feeders the rule of avoiding them with months without an R in it ‘rule’ applies. Once you get them home, give them a good rinse with cold water, boil them in seawater and serve with a cider (or malt) vinegar dressing. Alternatively serve like snails and cook in butter and garlic. You’ll need a pin to fish them out of their shells.
Limpets are better eating than many people suspect. Although their texture (a bit like pencil erasers are an acquired taste.) Either cook them VERY briefly (or they get very tough) or cook them for hours. I prefer the former method and if possible leave the black stomach sack on because that is where the flavour is. You have to be sure of their provenance and habitat they have been harvested from to do this. However most people, for prudence sake, remove this and just eat the muscular ‘foot’. You have to sneak up on them and a sharp sideways strike with a rock will dislodge them. Here these were prepared as canapes on sourdough, crispy fried seaweed and drizzled with olive oil and lemon and garnished with early scurvy grass.
There are many edible types of seaweed and many are perfect nutritional packages – packed full of vitamins, minerals and proteins. Today I collected Gutweed (ulva intestinalis) – excellent deep-fried to create crispy seaweed – and in Japan they call is aonori.
Sea lettuce was also picked in copious amounts (ulva lactuca) or what the Japanese call nori – is excellent added to salads, or dried and fried as crisps or made into sheets for sushi. Both the gutweed and the sea lettuce are drying in the sun on my washing line.
A large netted bag (so it does not collect water) of Laver (prophyra spp) was collected and is now cooking for several hours to make in to Laver Bread and Laver Breakfast Patties. The species I picked yesterday was porphyra leucosticta which grows attached to another seaweed: serrated or toothed wrack.
Finally I collected some long blades of Sugar Kelp (saccharina latissima) or kombu in Japan – which I use as a flavour enhancer in some soups when it is dried or I will use it when fresh to wrap fish in to protect it when cooking and infuse it with a gentle flavour of the sea.