Can you eat seaweed foraged on the Yorkshire coast?

PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 May 2017

Sea lettuce, toothed wrack, sugar kelp, dulse, carrageen, pepper dulse

Sea lettuce, toothed wrack, sugar kelp, dulse, carrageen, pepper dulse

Andy Bulmer

You don’t have to forage far to find delicious seashore greens on the Yorkshire coast, as Jo Haywood discovers.

Chris and Rose Bax collect seaweed at StaithesChris and Rose Bax collect seaweed at Staithes

When someone offers you something green they’ve just scraped off a rock, your first instinct is not to eat it. But what if that green thing turns out to be delicious; a deeply savoury hit of garlicky, buttery yumminess that makes you want to grab the nearest baguette and do unspeakably greedy things to it.

Of course, not all seaweed tastes like a French bistro. Some is, frankly, revolting, while other varieties will push your digestive system to breaking point or, if it’s particularly evil algae, kill you.

Which is why you need to do your research before setting forth with your bucket in one hand and a fork in the other. Or, better still, take along a couple of expert foragers who have been ferreting about in Yorkshire’s bountiful natural larder for the best part of 17 years.

‘This coastline provides a rich supply of seaweed,’ said forager (and trained chef) Chris Bax, as he led the way among the rockpools at Staithes. ‘But you can’t really head out foraging without doing your homework. Just like you wouldn’t learn how to skydive by lobbing yourself out of a plane, it’s best not to learn to forage by eating the first things you find. Do your research beforehand and really get to know what’s going to taste good and what could potentially poison you.’

Cod, buerre noisette, pepper dulse are prepared at the seashoreCod, buerre noisette, pepper dulse are prepared at the seashore

He set up Taste the Wild with his wife Rose in 2008 to promote wild foods as exciting ingredients to use in innovative ways, but they’ve both been avid foragers for almost two decades.

Chris is half chef, half boy scout (he loves a bit of bushcraft), a natural communicator who loves to poke about in the most unprepossessing of places and then transform his finds into delicious, innovative dishes. Rose, in contrast, is a natural plantswoman, having learned to identify plants, flowers and trees as a child with the help of her mum and granny. She’s also a talented artist and ‘chainsawist’, creating incredible artworks in wood using a chainsaw (and her vivid imagination) while putting her trusty power-tool to more practical use managing their 18-acres of woodland near Boroughbridge.

As well as hosting foraging courses, both inland and on the coast, Chris and Rose also work with leading restaurants, hotels and food producers, advising them on wild produce, taking kitchen brigades on foraging expeditions and plotting bespoke foraging maps and guides.

Their inland courses are usually held in their own woodland, which they bought with a mortgage from the Ecological Building Society in Silsden (no, we didn’t know that was a thing either, but we’re very glad it is), but when the coast calls, they more often than not find themselves perched on the rocky expanse revealed at low tide at Staithes.

Rose forages for sugar kelpRose forages for sugar kelp

Their aim in their one and two-day coastal course is to show the sheer diversity of the edible seaweed and shellfish available on our shoreline.

On the day of our foraging expedition, the tide was exceptionally low, providing a particularly rich smorgasbord of seaweed for us to nibble as we explored and to gather for cooking with later.

Chris and Rose use scissors to snip away only the seaweed they want from the rocks and pools. It’s the same principle as ‘cut and come again’ salad leaves – if you rip it out at the root there won’t be more for tea tomorrow.

‘And there’s always a chance you’ll rip out some barnacles or rock grit too,’ said Rose. ‘So, if you value your teeth, snip don’t pull.’

Main courseMain course

The Irish and Welsh have long been fans of seaweed, but we English have been a bit slower on the uptake. While they’ve been regularly tucking into dulse and laverbread, we’ve been sniffing suspiciously at anything even vaguely green before throwing it back in the sea.

So, how did Chris and Rose first take the plunge – not into the sea (although that can happen when you’re skidding about on rocks in your wellies) – into the world of foraging?

‘When Rose and I first got together, we’d walk a lot and she’d tell me about the flowers and plants,’ said Chris. ‘Up until then I was very much a yomper, charging through the landscape. I never noticed the details. I was a trained chef, so whenever she mentioned a plant, I’d say ‘yes, it’s very pretty, but can I eat it?’.’

So they started to do a bit of research. They bought a copy of Richard Mabey’s Food For Free (a bestselling foraging guide first published in 1972) and, on their first foraging tour round their own cottage garden, found five edible plants, including ground elder – the bane of gardeners’ lives – which they discovered had actually been brought here by the Romans as an edible crop with a flavour somewhere between parsley and spinach.

They began foraging for themselves. Then a few friends joined in. Then they hit on the idea of sharing their rapidly growing bank of knowledge with the public through fun foodie courses, and have not looked back since (apart from occasionally glancing over their shoulder to make sure someone hasn’t fallen into a rockpool).

‘We hit it at the right time,’ said Chris. ‘Ray Mears was on TV. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was in full swing at River Cottage. Then NOMA in Copenhagen was named best restaurant in the world and everyone started talking about L’Enclume in the Lake District – both run by chefs with a passion and talent for foraging.

‘From the start, we weren’t in the foraging for survival camp. For us, it’s always been about finding free ingredients that are completely delicious. If we can’t make it taste good, we leave it where it is.’

And boy, does it taste good. After a couple of hours foraging for our lunch amid Staithes beautifully clear rockpools, Chris cooked up a free feast for us. There were wedges of seaweed tortilla; winkles and kelp served with local cod in a buttery lime sauce; and creamy vanilla pannacotta (set with seaweed instead of gelatine) with pistachio crisps, rose syrup and delicate crystallised rose petals.

This was not your average beach barbecue. This was a real treat.

‘You’re not going to like all the seaweeds you try, but do keep trying,’ said Chris. ‘Sometimes a seaweed doesn’t work on its own, but that’s when you should maybe think about how you can use it with other things to make the most of their flavour.

‘Using foraged ingredients makes cooking a lot more exciting and adds a whole new flavour dimension. I love discovering something new and having a ‘what the hell is that?’ moment in my mouth.’ People who venture out on to the rocks with Chris and Rose are generally amazed that not all seaweed tastes of the sea. Some, of course, does capture its salty, irony sharpness, but you get all kinds of flavour profiles within the same rocky stretch of coast. Some are garlicky, some zesty, some peppery and some sweet.

You might not think you’ve ever eaten seaweed yourself, but you probably have. Carrageen is the one seaweed that virtually everyone has tried, albeit unknowingly. It’s used as a thickener in all sorts of products like almond milk, yogurts and even McDonald’s thick shakes. It’s also great for setting mousses and pannacottas.

As well as adding flavour and interest, seaweed is also fiercely good for you; packed full of nutrients like vitamins A, B, C and B12, potassium, magnesium and calcium. And it’s also good for the planet as we have bountiful natural supplies – especially if we all use the ‘cut and come again’ policy. ‘We don’t harvest things to sell, but I’ve not necessarily got a problem with people who do,’ said Chris. ‘And I’m not against people developing farmed versions of the foraged plants and sea algae. If these products are going to make it on to the supermarket shelves – which I very much hope they do – then that’s the way we’re inevitably going to have to go.

‘For me, sustainability is not just about protecting, it’s about developing. And in the meantime, we can happily forage along the seashore, getting back in touch (literally) with our food.’

The summer months are a great time to forage for seaweed as it grows abundantly in warmer weather. But there’s generally plenty available throughout the year. ‘Forage as close to the sea as you dare at the lowest tide,’ said Rose. ‘Don’t forage inland close to the cliffs and beach because the seaweed can be a bit polluted and sludgy. Look for fresh, clear pools out on the sea edge for the freshest seaweed.’ But don’t venture out alone. Pop your trusty foraging guide in your pocket, or book a day out with Chris and Rose. Honestly, you won’t regret it. ‘I’m still excited by the foraging process after 17 years,’ said Chris. ‘There’s always something new to find and a new taste to try. It’s exhilarating. And if I’ve got someone new to talk to – well, that really makes my day.’

To find out more about foraging or to book a course, call Chris and Rose on 07914 290 083 or visit tastethewild.co.uk

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