Standing in the howling wind on the beach at Lyme Regis, looking at a nondescript clump of greenery, I realise I would never have cut it as a hunter-gatherer.
Aside from a few forays into pick-your-own, I’ve never been in the position of having to find my own dinner. And luckily that isn’t the case here – instead, I’m being shown the fundamentals of foraging by Mark Hix, of the oyster and chop houses, who is bounding round the Jurassic Coast plucking things from the ground, followed by a comet-tail of soggy but inquistive food journalists.
The British seashore is a surprisingly fertile place: here was a clump of sea-kale, over there were the tender leaves of sea purslane, perfect with lobster. Sea rocket, sea peas and sea aster – the naming conventions leave a little to be desired – are also relatively easy to find. Perhaps the jewel in the forager’s crown is sea-buckthorn, which the Cornish chef Nathan Outlaw used in a meringue in last year’s Great British Menu. These vibrant orange berries grow all around our island, particularly in Sussex, where they have been planted to ward off coastal erosion.
Bucking the trend
Their citrus bitterness is an acquired taste, but one way to get the hang of it is a sea-buckthorn hot toddy: strip the berries off the thorny branches by throwing them in the freezer, then bang them on a hard surface. Blitz them in a blender, sieve, then add an equal quantity of sugar, some lemon juice and cloves, a dash of honey, a good slug of whisky (we used Talisker, a nicely smoky single malt from the Isle of Skye) and enough hot water to assuage your conscience about the alcohol content.
If you’re more virtuous, sea-buckthorn juice can fill in for lemon in any recipe: 10ml of juice for each lemon. “It’s especially good in ice creams, jellies and sorbets,” says Outlaw, adding ominously: “The juice smells strange but this goes away once it’s cooled.”
Foraging is now such a trend that a web search for courses turns up dozens of results, costing from £20 to the low hundreds. There’s also a how-to book called The Thrifty Forager by Alys Fowler. When I call her, she sounds a note of caution about getting stuck in at the seaside. “It’s largely protected and it’s a sensitive area,” she says. “You can overpick areas like that.” Luckily, Fowler says that urban foraging is just as satisfying and less legally problematic (because cities have more public land, whereas most of the countryside is privately owned and it’s harder to seek permission to gather food there). “This autumn I found an almond tree in the centre of Birmingham,” she says. “And everyone is near a free apple tree – every time someone throws away a pip and it lands in a favourable place, there’s one.” Even in the dead of winter, there’s food out there – nettles and winter greens.
That said, there are hazards. Two pieces of rock samphire from opposite ends of the beach tasted very different, making me suspect that one had been spritzed with eau de chien. Perhaps you’re better off buying that in Waitrose, which stocks it in summer.