John Wright and the art of seashore foraging
PUBLISHED: 11:49 13 February 2018 | UPDATED: 14:46 13 February 2018
Can you identify your clam from your cockle? Natalie French speaks with author of the River Cottage Edible Seashore Handbook, John Wright, to learn more about the art of seashore foraging and what delights we can find on our shoreline
Over a period of twenty years, John Wright has led around five hundred ‘forays’ – showing people how to collect and feast on nature’s edible gifts – from mushrooms in the New Forest; to seaweeds and shellfish from our southern shores. Whilst fungi are his greatest passion (he’s a member of the British Mycological Society and has studied them for 35 years) his love of foraging harks back to his childhood, growing up in Southsea in Portsmouth.
“My dad had a 1928 Morris – which was ancient even then – and he used to drive me and my three sisters halfway up the Eastern Road,” John regales. “We’d park the car by a bridge on the roadside and get out with buckets.
“Langstone Harbour is an estuary-like area with vast quantities of thick, black-as-ink, mud. You just put your hand in there and circle about and you’d find loads of cockles - buckets and buckets of them!
“It was an inspiration to me,” he continues, “and I loved doing it - It was such an adventure! I only really thought of this recently, but the two things I loved most when I was young was cockle-hunting and blackberry picking – everything else came really quite a poor second.”
Along with the cockles, one of John’s favourite finds is a ‘lovely little clam’ called Palourde. “They are filter feeders – so they suck in sea water and squirt it out again – so they have two syphons that are at the top of the shell. They appear as two little holes in the mud or the sand. So you can always spot them and you just pop your hand down and pull them out! It’s a neat trick!”
Hampshire’s lack of a rocky shore means it’s not as abundant in seashore produce as neighbouring county, Dorset, but John believes it is ‘clam city’!
“You do sometimes find the Slipper limpet, whose Latin name is Crepidula fornicate. They have an oval-shaped shell and they usually sit in stacks, one on top of the other. They’re a bit chewy, but they do make a very good stock – if you can find them! They are fairly deep water creatures, but they do wash up on the shore.
“Razor clams are another one. They are quite hard to find, but they should be easy in Hampshire. You want slightly muddy sand, estuarine conditions and you’ll need a good spring tide. If they are there, you’ll see a keyhole/figure-of-eight shape in the sand – due to the Razor clams having two syphons. It could be under a foot of water or on bare sand – it doesn’t really matter, but you tease them out with salt – it irritates them and they come up. Grab the sharp edge of the shell and just gently, gently, pull them out.”
Beyond shellfish, seaweed is another delight that John encourages us to eat. “There’s about 300-400 species of seaweed and, out of those, about a dozen are worth eating! Fortunately, there are no poisonous seaweed, so you’re safe – unlike mushrooms or plants!
“You will find seaweed near Hayling Island – as it’s a man-made rocky shore. You could probably go shrimping there too – you just need a 4ft wide net and a shallow sandy shore – usually in April, early May.”
But just what is it that makes foraging so appealing?
“I think it comes down to the fact we have a foraging instinct – which is very powerful and we tend to ignore it,” explains John. “I see it come out of people when I take them on forays. They are always a bit wary to start with wondering what it’s going to entail. But after about half an hour you see their eyes light up and they get excited and start looking for stuff – it’s great! It’s like our instinct switches back on!”
John also believes our foraging instincts are still at play away from nature: “I think the supermarkets try to recreate the foraging experience. That’s why we love shopping, because it’s like foraging. We are inquisitive beings! There’s no need in nature to acquire things – the only things you need are food and a mate. That’s my theory!”
So just how do we evoke our inner gathering instincts? John’s advice for virgin foragers is simple...“Just go for a walk along the beach and see what you can find!
“You want to keep away from beaches that are suitable for sunbathing and swimming – because they’re usually rubbish for everything else. Go somewhere manky – sea-weedy and rocky!
“It’s only a matter of having fun but, firstly, you have to take care as there are always safety concerns about doing anything by the seaside. Be particularly wary of tides. Always go at a low spring tide and beware of mud – as you will get stuck if you get it wrong!
“My book covers just about everything you’re likely to find. There’s not much poisonous down by the seaside. If something looks tasty try it. If it’s shellfish then you have to be careful of contamination.”
If you’re not brave enough to adventure solo, then John is happy to show you the ropes on one of his seashore forays, just across the border. “We do very well in Dorset as we get a double low tide – allowing plenty of time for foraging.”
One of the highlights of the is you’ll be able to feast on all your finds at the end of the day, says John: “We have a big cook up on the beach!. I get quite a few letters from people saying what a lovely day they had. I’ve actually had people say ‘it’s been the best day out I’ve had in 18 years’! Which is nice.”
1. The seashore forager lives by the tide, so learn its rhythms and vagaries in your area. The spring (big) tides are best for putting out crab pots and finding seaweeds, and knowing the tides will help keep you safe.
2. Learn to love seaweed! It is an acquired taste, but cooked properly it really is wonderful. I dry the different seaweeds I find and then turn it into a powder which goes into nearly everything I cook.
3. Collect considerately. All the foragers I know love the natural history of the seashore and seek to protect it. With seaweeds and plants cut a little here, a little there. It’s easy to be good.
4. Be safe. Flood tides, sticky mud, falling off a cliff, having something fall off a cliff on to your head, poisonous plants, lobster claws. The seashore is notoriously dangerous so do beware and be prepared.
5. Have fun. This is what foraging is all about. Enjoy the air, the sights and, most of all, look at the living world of the seashore with a close eye. You never know what you’re going to miss if you don’t look closely.