Give it a go: Coastal foraging

All around us, ancient varieties of food are just waiting to be rediscovered. From leaves like samphire and sea beet to seaweeds, blackberries, beech nuts and violets – you’ll be amazed at the abundance and variety.
Give it a go: Coastal foraging

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

Before the rise of agriculture, our ancestors were foragers. Many of our vegetables, like carrots, parsnips and spinach, came from the coast before we began harvesting seeds and growing them in gardens and on farms.

We caught up with Devon-based foraging teacher Jacky Pearce (Wilderness Woman) to learn more about these incredible edibles – and what you can search for on your next coastal adventure.

The darker area on the rocks shows where the tide comes up to

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

Where to look

Rockpools are welcoming environments for algae and seaweeds. Rocks and banks around the water's edge are good spots to look for things like sea beet (sea spinach) and samphire.

But don't write off the sandy beaches – dewberries and wild leeks thrive in sand dunes which can yield species that are harder to find elsewhere.

And take the time to look further back from the shore. Woodland areas are often full of wild garlic in spring and a great place to look for fungi in the autumn.

Wherever you are, get out and take a closer look to see what you can find.

Tip: Avoid areas where storm overflows release sewage (Surfers Against Sewage has an interactive map you can use to check).

Craggy coasts with sandy beaches and rockpools make for great coastal foraging

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

Seaweed

Seaweed is an abundant and underrated food source. It’s high in protein (up to 25% in some species) and rich in iodine, magnesium and trace minerals such as iron, calcium and vitamins A and C. This superfood contains all trace elements needed by humans.

It can be eaten raw or dried, on its own as a snack or ground to add flavour to your cooking. It can even be used to make bread. With so many uses and so much nutrition, it's definitely worth tapping into this sustainable resource – and it's likely you already are. Next time you're shopping, look out for the ingredient 'alginate'. Derived from seaweed, it's used to help set jellies and thicken drinks and ice cream.

Remember, only take what you need – a little goes a long way with seaweed – and remember to rinse or soak it in sea water to liberate grit and any small creatures sheltering in the fronds!

Jacky says: ‘All species commonly found are edible, but some are tastier than others and some hardier species need cooking first. Embrace trial and error to find the ones you enjoy.’

Tip: Seaweeds and other marine life are susceptible to heavy metal pollution and agrochemical runoff from farmland – so avoid foraging near areas of heavy industry, or estuaries when it's been raining heavily.

The best time to forage for seaweed is when the receding tide has just uncovered them

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

Dulse

A forager's favourite, dulse can be added to soda bread or used to flavour and thicken a broth. Cook it first to soften it. Some species are said to have a bacon flavour when fried. Red dulse grows a little further out than sea lettuce, you’ll notice its colour contrasting against the rocks.

Dulse is commonly found just beyond where the sea lettuce grows

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

Laver

Awarded EU protected food status, Laverbread is a Welsh delicacy made by simmering the laver for 6 hours. It’s then spread on toast, or mixed with oats and fried. Perfect for a slow cooker.

Laver

Photo: Shutterstock/Chris Moody

Sea lettuce

A delicate green seaweed that can be eaten raw or fried. It's delicious when mixed into creamy mashed potatoes or dried and sprinkled on new potatoes.

Sea lettuce is a delicate seaweed, so can be added to dishes raw

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

Pepper dulse

Although they share a name, dulse and pepper dulse look very different. It's described as the 'truffle of the sea' or ‘spice of the sea' for good reason. This elusive little seaweed tastes like a mixture of garlic, pepper and mushroom.

'Truffle of the sea' pepper dulse

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

Fun fact: Love the song of the sea? Bladderwrack, a common kelp along our shores, can be dried and used as a whistle! For more fun ideas for exploring our coastlines, check out our article on beachcombing.

Recipes

Vegan Hebridean seaweed broth

Adapted from recipe in Simply Seaweed by Leslie Ellis (ISBN: 1-898697-45-0).

Vegan Hebridean seaweed broth

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

Ingredients:

  • 50g dulse, cooked and chopped
  • 1 medium potato, mashed (try creamy sea lettuce mash!)
  • 25g vegetable spread
  • 1tsp lemon juice
  • salt and pepper
  • 750ml soy milk

Directions:

  1. Melt the spread and add the dulse, mashed potato, spread and lemon juice.
  2. Gradually stir in the milk and return to heat.
  3. Gently simmer for 20 minutes, stirring often.
  4. Season and serve.

Vegan dulse (or dillisk) soda bread

Adapted from recipe by the late Gavin Galvin of Drimcong House, Co Galway.

Vegan dulse (or dillisk) soda bread

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

Ingredients:

  • 25g dulse, cooked and chopped
  • 110g melted sunflower spread
  • 1 large carrot, grated
  • 4tsp egg replacer, whisked with 110ml cold water
  • 50g castor sugar
  • 250g plain flour, sieved
  • 1.5tsp baking powder

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 140ºC.
  2. Place chopped dulse in a sieve and soak in cold water for 5–10 minutes, pat dry.
  3. Mix egg replacer, dulse, carrot, sugar, spread and salt.
  4. Fold in sieved flour and baking powder thoroughly.
  5. The mix will be wet so use plenty of flour when tipping out onto your baking sheet.
  6. Form into a round loaf and cut a cross on the top with a floured knife.
  7. Bake for 40–50 minutes.

Safety advice

  • Check the tides. This is a tidal activity so make sure you're aware of your surroundings and any headlands or rocky outcrops that could cause you to become cut off.
  • Check the forecast (including the wind). A strong onshore wind can drive the water in faster than the tide table predicts.
  • Tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back. 
  • Go with someone. With slippery rocks and careful timing involved, it's best to make sure you're not alone. 
  • Don't get too close to cliffs. Erosion can create unpredictable cliff collapse. When looking for plants growing on rocks and banks, focus your search on low banks.
  • Never touch anything you're unsure of. Some poisonous plants (such as the notorious hemlock) can look similar to related species (such as wild parsnip). Learn the dangerous plants, as well as the edibles.
  • Book a course. Nothing beats getting out on the coast with someone local who knows their stuff.

Give something back

While you're enjoying our coastal bounty, try to leave the beach a little lovelier than when you arrived. With more and more trash on most beaches now, be prepared and take a rubbish bag.

And for sustainability, follow the three or none rule. If you come across three flowers, take one, but if there are only two, leave both.

If you’ll be exploring the coast, take a look at our coastal walking advice to make sure you stay safe.

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