Food & drink

A SHORE THING

Seaweed for supper? Food columnist Sophie Haydock goes wild for seaside foraging on the East Sussex coast
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 “It turns out that several hundred seaweeds are native to UK waters with between 20 and 40 making great eating.”

It’s rare that a breakfast consists of a mouthful of salt-tinged seaweed, fresh from the rocks. But my guide, with a touch of wild-man charm, has convinced me to try a little. “It’s dulse,” says Geoff Dann with such enthusiasm that it suddenly seems rude to refuse. I’m still reticent though. The rusty-brown sea-algae he passes over has the scent of the ocean and the texture of plastic. But, after some tentative chews, the umami flavour opens up. It’s absolutely lovely.

Geoff, a professional forager, runs courses on the East Sussex coast between Brighton and Eastbourne. But the precise location for our jaunt is closely guarded. He’d even sworn me to secrecy before we set out.

“I have to because this is the best place for edible seaweeds in southeast England,” he’d explained during our descent to the shore. Not that it looked much like a larder to me. In fact, aside from the tall chalk cliffs hemming the ocean, it could have been any beach, anywhere in the country. The low tide had exposed rocks covered in layers of glossy weeds in a spectrum of greens and browns. None of which exactly screamed “eat me”. Then again, foraging is all about getting your eye in.

It turns out that several hundred seaweeds are native to UK waters with between 20 and 40 making great eating. Many of these grow in abundance in this spot. Splashing through rockpools and over slippery surfaces with the sure-footedness of someone who does this often, Geoff shouts the names of what lies around us: sea lettuce, sugar kelp, channelled wrack, toothed wrack, Japanese wireweed, oarweed and the ominous-sounding gutweed. Then he stops to hold up something that resembles mermaid’s hair: tendrils of red, half a metre long. Its English name is less romantic: slender wartweed.

Soon, what had been a layer of brown and green changes in front of my eyes. I start to see the individually dazzling and beautiful forms; they are all intriguing shapes and textures. As we walk, Geoff excitedly points out the more well-known edible species, as well as a couple, like ogonori, that aren’t mentioned in any UK guides, despite being highly prized in Japan, southeast Asia and the Caribbean.

“Ogonori is wildly popular in Hawaii,” he says. “To the point, in fact, that it has been foraged almost to extinction and now has to be cultivated. Yet ogonori is pretty much unknown in the UK.”

We pick some and move on. With the morning sun rising in the sky, the sea air and the calls of seabirds, I start to see the wider attractions of wild food and coastal foraging. It beats a supermarket any day and it’s surprisingly easy.

picking fresh seaweed

Actually, anyone could forage for seaweed but it’s obviously best to go out with a professional at first. Geoff agrees, although he stresses that his mission is to encourage people to have a go at picking and cooking it themselves. He wants us all to engage with a food type that is healthy, delicious and abundant.

Only a few decades ago, the idea of eating seaweed would have probably been met with a twisted grimace. Today that attitude is changing. Seaweed is found on menus everywhere, from the local supermarket to fine dining restaurants. That lunchtime favourite, sushi, comes wrapped in sheets of nori and there’s rehydrated wakame in miso soup.

To give it a go, select rocky shores with rockpools near the low-tide level that are not too sheltered because most seaweeds thrive in rougher waters. Geoff tells me that the right time to go is at a low, low tide – as opposed to just a low tide – and summer is the season. Seaweeds have different life cycles, but on the whole, they start growing in winter and most are at their best from late spring to early autumn. Finally, if you intend to eat seaweed raw, it’s got to grow in clean water. A good indicator is that if a beach’s waters are safe to bathe in, it’s likely that the cleanliness levels are sufficient to forage.

It goes without saying though that anybody foraging on British beaches has to take care. The environment can be edgy, with slippery rocks and fast-changing waters. “The tides can come in very quickly,” Geoff tells me. “So always check tide tables before you set out and keep an eye on the time. Be aware of how long you’ve got. It all comes down to being sensible.”

It’s sensible too to ask permission from whoever owns the beach – whether the local council, the National Trust or an individual – before you start. There is no common law right to pick seaweed unless it’s already become detached but, in practice, taking a bag or two home is unlikely to get you into trouble. It’s also good etiquette to take scissors or a knife to cut, rather than rip, the seaweed.

As we walk, I ask the classic wild food question. Geoff reassures me that there are no poisonous seaweeds near UK shores. The only dangerous type found anywhere near the UK being the desmarestia species, which releases acid when damaged. “But in the UK, these are not generally found above the lowest low tide level, so it would be unusual for a forager to ever encounter them.”

Seaweeds actually do us the world of good and are widely regarded as a superfood. They’re low in carbs, they don’t have many calories and they’re packed full of calcium, iodine, antioxidants, nutrients and minerals, as well as offering vitamins galore, including zinc, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, potassium.

“They should be part of our daily diet,” Geoff says. “Some seaweed is really good. It has a huge amount of nutritional value and vast amounts of it are going to waste. Kelp, for example. There’s tons of the stuff and nobody’s interested.”

There’s also evidence that algae can help people lose weight: in 2014, scientists at the University of Newcastle found that alginate, a substance in kelp, could stop the body absorbing fat by 75%. Jamie Oliver revealed that seaweed helped him to lose two stone in weight. “I thought seaweed was hippy, globetrotting stuff, but our ancestors ate seaweed,” he stated. “It’s got a load of iodine and it’s the most nutritious vegetable in the world. It’s like dynamite – fibre, nutrients, all the minerals, aids digestion. Unbelievable.”

And as if that wasn’t enough, seaweed can help a hangover. Kelp, spirulina and wakame are high in the nutrient magnesium, which is depleted after a big night of boozing. So why has seaweed been so shamefully overlooked?

“It’s not on our radar,” Geoff says. “Partly, there’s a cultural obstacle. Certainly in Ireland, eating seaweed was connected with poverty and famine. So we associate it with a food that you’d only eat if you really haven’t got anything else.” Apparently, a similar reappraisal happened with oysters. “They were once a staple food of the poor and now look at them. They’re a rich-man’s delicacy.”

Seaweed is a versatile ingredient though. After washing, it can be prepared in a variety of ways, depending on what you’ve got in your haul. Fresh seaweeds, such as gutweed, are best cut up and deep-fried in oil for 20 seconds. Others, such as sea lettuce, suit being wrapped around fish to infuse it with a subtle salty flavour. Kelp is great when boiled and simmered and added to a salad. As I’d already learned, dulse can be eaten raw or chopped into mashed potato, and sugar kelp can be dried, marinated in brandy and dipped in chocolate.

As we hug the tide line, plucking more samples from the shore, it’s clear Geoff is in his element. I ask him what the next big thing will be in the seaweed world and he doesn’t have to think for a second. “Pepper dulse,” he says, hopping over a rock and coming back with a short tuft of it. “Here. It’s a flavour revelation.”

prepping for seaweed cooking

I try a nibble. The taste isn’t exactly peppery, but there’s a punch. And it’s deliciously similar to truffle, which makes sense, as it is apparently nicknamed “truffle of the sea”. I take a bigger bite, and another. “Good isn’t it?” laughs Geoff. “It’s the seaweed that people are most surprised and impressed by.”

As I pick a few bunches to take home, he suggests cooking it with fish or using it dried, like a spice, and sprinkling it over scrambled eggs. I’m surprised we don’t see more of this in shops or on menus. Geoff shrugs. “It’s short and tufty, so you have to carefully remove any grit from the roots and between the fronds. It doesn’t keep fresh for long, so it’s best dried and made into a powder.”

Later, by the foot of the cliffs, we discover some seaside greens: rock samphire, sea beet and sea kale. I try them raw and am again surprised how good they taste. The rock samphire is floral and herbal, the beet like a juicy, pre-salted spinach and the kale reminiscent of a peppery cabbage. Further inland, at a nearby river estuary, we pick little cactus-shaped marsh samphire and sea purslane. Both are abundant on the east coast and great with seafood dishes.

On the way back to the start, Geoff spots a monster patch of funghi: giant puffballs – huge, round, white mushrooms often mistaken for abandoned footballs – growing in a shore-side field. This is a dream come true for any forager and we collect a load between us. They have an amazing marshmallow texture and, when sliced and fried in butter and garlic, taste divine.

Now it’s time to try our hand in the kitchen. Today wild food can be found on the menus of many Best Western hotel restaurants. Chefs across this collection of hotels are excitedly embracing the use of foraged, local ingredients. It’s no surprise then that the kitchen team at Best Western Plus Old Tollgate Hotel, close to Shoreham-by-Sea, is only too happy to give over the kitchen to us to see what creative and quirky meals Geoff will come up with.

He starts with one of his favourite dishes: ogonori with grated ginger. Slicing cucumber, he peels, halves, seeds and salts it. Then a dressing is made of a teaspoon of toasted sesame seeds, two tablespoons of rice wine vinegar, a tablespoon of distilled white vinegar, a teaspoon of sugar, and a medium nugget of grated ginger. Finally, he blanches a few handfuls of the ogonori in a small amount of water, drains the seaweed, and serves with the dressing. The dish is delicious, both familiar and mysterious. It’s the kind of thing that would garner a hefty price tag in trendy parts of the capital.

The puffballs particularly draw the attention of the chefs at the hotel, who despite their adventurous culinary skills in the well-stocked basement kitchen, haven’t seen this ingredient before. “You found those in a field?” They ask, before chuckling. “Are you sure you can eat them?”

seaweed dish

We discuss the best ways to cook the football funghi. We settle on doing the simplest thing we can to appreciate the flavour. Using a cloth, the puffballs are gently cleaned, then sliced into large rounds. Next, we fry them in a little butter until they are golden and gently sizzling, but still firm and holding their shape. Then Geoff dishes them up, positioning them in the centre of a plate, garnished with a selection of the raw sea greens, which have been washed and arranged.

We all dive in with knives and forks. The puffball has acted as a sponge for the flavours in the pan. The first mouthful is nutty and the sharp, salty sea greens – sea beet, purslane and samphire – cut through the buttery base wonderfully. If you didn’t know better, the square of now-golden puffball on the end of our forks could be mistaken for a firmer tofu, making it perfect for vegetarians and vegans, when it can be found in the late summer to early autumn months.

With each bite, I’m taken back to Sussex’s spectacular seashore and its nearby terrains alive with wildlife and a surprising array of incredible ingredients. This eye-opening experience has shown that with a little understanding of the local environment and a keen eye, there is such a thing as a free lunch. And it tastes surprisingly good. 


CREATE YOUR OWN STORY

Best Western Plus Old Tollgate Hotel & Restaurant, The Street, Bramber, Steyning, BN44 3WE

Village setting at the foot of the South Downs with great restaurant, 20-minutes from the coast.


Best Western Princes Marine Hotel, 153 Kingsway, Hove, BN3 4GR

Seafront hotel overlooking Hove Lawns and the English Channel.


Best Western Lansdowne Hotel, King Edward’s Parade, Eastbourne BN21 4EE

Views of Beachy Head from grand hotel with restaurant close to Eastbourne beach.


Best Western York House Hotel, 14-22 Royal Parade, Eastbourne, BN22 7AP

Victorian hotel with 85 rooms close to the pier and the beach with indoor swimming pool.


Geoff’s Fungi & Foraging | geoffdann.co.uk | +44 (0) 7964 569715

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