Wild edibles are in abundance across the British Isles with a tantalising range of fungi, plants, shellfish and seaweed on offer countrywide.
whether you’re looking to expand your knowledge of your local ecosystem, spend more time outdoors or make your dinner parties all the more interesting, coastal foraging promises the discovery of a world full of beauty, flavour and intrigue, all whilst providing you with the opportunity to visit Britain’s beautiful coastlines.
Expert forager Matt Vernon gives me an introduction to coastal foraging and his top tips for heading to the coast and giving it a go.
Originally from Lacock, Matt has been foraging since his childhood and spent years researching and honing his skills.
He has featured on multiple television programmes and worked with many of the most prestigious restaurants in Cornwall, supplying them with wild edibles from around the coast. He now holds both coastal and woodland foraging walks and pop-up feasts around the county.
Why we should forage
Matt begins by explaining that wild foraging is important for our countryside. Much like pruning your garden plants, by picking some species, foraging enables others to grow. However, he emphasises the only way this to be the case is to forage sustainably. “Safe foraging is sustainable foraging. By picking new leaves from plants you lower the risk of taking poisonous varieties home, whilst ensuring you’re not taking away huge handfuls of plant growth at a time”. Whilst it is important to be aware of plants with toxins, there are many others with immense health benefits. “Take wild nettles for example, they are pretty much classed as a superfood and have higher nutritional values than spinach and almost as much protein as pulses. They’re the perfect compliment to a vegan diet as they’re high in iron and calcium.” One of the reasons Matt enjoys foraging so much is because finding wild edibles around the coast is possible all year round and helps us to develop an affinity with our natural surroundings. “You develop a connection with nature and feel a part of it. When you become a part of something you become protective of it, so many foragers are also environmental campaigners.”
How to give it a go
The first thing Matt advises is don’t try to forage a whole meal. “The idea is to incorporate wild food into your everyday diet. This also means that you’re not setting yourself up for failure or disappointment when you can’t forage your whole dinner.” Having done some homework and equipped with a couple of books (Matt recommends that Emma Gunn’s Never Mind the Burdocks is one of them) it’s time to head to the coast. “At your local beach start in the splash zone, just above the high tide mark and look for small areas of soil where plants will be able to grow. Sea beet is the easiest one to look for and has similar characteristics to chard, with green leaves and purple stalks. You can use different parts of the sea beet plant at different times of the year. For example, during spring you can make a salad from the leaves and when it goes into flower during the summer the flower stalks have a crunchy texture.”
Next on the list is Rock Samphire. Well known for its popularity in Michelin star restaurants, it is also found above the high tide line and even grows out of sea walls. “It’s easily recognisable and therefore easy to identify, but is a strong flavour so should be paired with other things. The flowers are also delicious, especially when they’ve been dipped in tempura batter.” Sea Radish can be found in the splash zone too, further up than sea beet and also in sand dunes.
From late summer to late spring, the many varieties of seaweed are at their best for foraging. Matt’s favourite is Thong Weed, alternatively known as Sea Spaghetti. “It’s a lovely seaweed to eat and is great for kids. It starts a khaki colour but when submerged in boiling water for 10-20 seconds turns bright green.”
Our favourite foraging experiences across the British Isles:
Cornish Wild Food, Cornwall, England
Specialising in wild food education and wild cooking, Matt offers coastal foraging walks and feasts at various sites around the Cornish coast. cornishwildfood.co.uk
Coastal Foraging, Pembrokeshire and Camarthenshire, Wales
Discover sea vegetables and shellfish whilst learning about the seashore environment. At low tide, discover deep water species such as crabs and lobster. Craig, accompanied by his dog, aims to inspire people in their knowledge of the coastal environment and to promote its conservation. coastalforaging.co.uk
Coastal Survival School, UK
Based in the South West but available across the UK, Coastal Survival School brings together a range of experts to provide you with fantastic foraging experiences on the British coast. Choose from a wide range of courses including foraging for coastal plants or for seaweed and shellfish. coastalsurvival.com
Wildwood Bushcraft, Moidart, Scotland
For the all out coastal foraging experience, Wildwood Bushcraft holds full day courses where you will learn to fish, forage and cook. Finds include seaweed, crustaceans, shellfish and fish. wildwoodbushcraft.com
Matt makes it very clear that it is crucial to be aware of the health and safety risks of coastal foraging. “Don’t eat anything unless you’re one hundred percent certain. It’s as important to be able to identify the poisonous plants as it is the edible ones, as there are some toxic species such as Hemlock Water Dropwort which can often prove fatal upon consumption.”
Here are his top tips for keeping safe:
Don’t rush it: Practice sustainable foraging by picking one leaf at a time
Cross-reference: Use two or more books to cross-reference during identification
Be safe: Never eat anything unless you are certain of your identification
Be sure: Double check your harvest when you get home
Use social media: Use social media groups to contact foragers and botanists to help you with identification. They will have seen species in their multiple stages of growth, whereas a book may only show you one.
Having said this, Matt tells me that this shouldn’t put people off from heading to the coast and foraging at their local beaches. For those who find it difficult to access the beach or rockpools, you can look for edibles in car parks, gardens, or anywhere with a hedgerow. Wherever you go, it’s worth going foraging with an expert to begin with, to learn the fascinating history and etymology of the plants, including their historical botanical usage. Matt tells me, “You will also learn about sustainable foraging and woodland management, useful knowledge for helping you find wild edibles, to appreciate and understand habitats, and help us to protect them more.”
Words | Lydia Paleschi