When hunting for wild food you should always be aware of a couple of conditions, especially when foraging close to residential areas. First of all: dogs. They may be man’s best friend, but they also use our main source of wild food as their bathroom. Therefore, if you pick up any parts of plants, make sure you give them a proper rinse. Also for this reason, it is best to try to avoid commonly trekked grassy areas and forage in a more wilder area. When collecting seaweed, be cautious because decades ago towns used to connect their piping systems to the sea without any filters. This has changed by now, but unfortunately there is still a lot of waste-water and sewage in our oceans. Additionally, always make sure to pick fresh seaweed – you all know how rotten seaweed smells, and you probably do not want to taste anything like that odor!
There are also some legal conditions to be aware of when foraging for wild food; fruits or leaves are not a problem, but if you are interested in gathering roots you will need to have the permission of the landowner. The same goes for mussels; you need to have a license to remove mussels from a rock.
After being briefed with legal advice, our group went down to the waterfront. We splashed straight through puddles and the sucking noises of our shoes walking over muddy sand could be heard all around. Many on the walk were hopping from tideway to tideway, myself included. Since it was low tide, we could walk or jump the whole way down to the waterfront to see fresh examples of the different forms of edible algae.
We learned that gut weed, also called sea lettuce, makes a nice side dish. After it has been washed thoroughly, simply fry it in a wok with garlic and sesame oil. For everyone who is making a face now at the prospect: if you fancy ice cream, you have most likely eaten seaweed before. Most companies use kelp to thicken the product in the big containers sold at supermarkets. It is also used for fertilizer, as it is very rich in minerals. Sea lettuce is also a great source of nutrition for humans – and our guide Tony told us that the stem tastes similar to peanuts. We also learned how to make healthy crisps out of sugar kelp to replace sugary or fatty snacks: simply gather fresh sugar kelp, cut in into crisp-size pieces and dry it.
Crabs are all over the North Sea and are perfectly edible. On the beach, especially during low tide, you are likely to come across little holes in the sand; these are the homes of spoots or spoot clams, also called razorfish. To add spoots to your diet, put a little salt in these holes – this draws them out of hiding. Pull gently to free them from the holes, and enjoy them raw or fried with parsley.
The biggest problem with wild shellfish is that it is particularly susceptible to environmental toxins. Also, the shellfish sometimes consume toxins via smaller organisms in their diet, and these toxins are not always destroyed during cooking. So, it’s often better to keep your hands off wild shellfish than risk poisoning. However, limpets (a type of sea snail) can be very nice when they are cooked properly – just remember to take the gut sack off before cooking or consuming because it does not have a good flavour.
One participant in the group taught us some locally-sourced beauty tips in addition to the food information our tour guide provided. According to her, a bath with serrated wrack seaweed can make your skin very smooth.
After we left the beach we made our way through the transition zone between beach and sea to then stop at the mainland, where we came across heaps of berries and other edible plants. Rosebuds, for instance, create a great basis for jams, jellies or even a wine similar to sherry. They are rich in vitamin C and can also be dried then consumed afterwards. Just don’t eat the seeds and small hairs on the inside – you probably remember them and their effects from your childhood!
Scurvy grass is a plant that adapted special requirements to survive in the salty habitat of the transition zone. It is also rich in vitamin C, as the name indicates. Be careful to keep your hands off of cow parsley, which unfortunately looks very similar to common parsley; consuming it has some negative and very uncomfortable consequences on your body, which is why some people also call it “devil’s meat”.
Sea buckthorn berries can be eaten raw, and they are nice as an ice cream base, topping, or an ingredient for alcoholic beverages such as wine or gin. Hawthorn berries should be used for a jelly instead of being consumed raw, and the jelly is often used as a side dish to meat creations. Although you might have been told different during your childhood, snow berries can be eaten safely – they just taste like soap. If you pick pine needles, which are very rich in vitamin C, you can add a new flavour to your tea collection by brewing them in hot water.
After the very interesting and enriching walk, Transition University of St Andrews had a great potluck lunch in one of the 11 community gardens in St. Andrews. While wandering around the garden, their team explained how everyone can join the group, as well as plant and harvest in the gardens. It felt exceptionally good to wander around while eating delicious dishes made of the vegetables all around us. I cannot wait to try out the many things I learned about, especially seaweed as a side and healthy alternative to crisps!