Eating wild: How to forage for the best meals the outdoors has to offer

Share this article

Let's call him Lucky", I say, as one of the leaders of our seaside foraging course, Xa Milne, lifts a shore crab from the fringes of algae that line a dark rock-pool. Our quarry is a titch, with one leg missing, but his runtiness has saved him. That's because, according to Milne, the body of these arthropods has to be at least 12cm in diameter before you can legally take them home, boil them up and anoint them with mayonnaise.

"Not a lot of meat on that one," she says, before dropping Lucky back into the water, with a plop.

But that's not such bad news for our hungry group, as there are plenty of other spoils to be found on a stroll along the pale yellow sands of Elie Beach on the East Neuk of Fife. We're taking part in a Forage Rangers seaside session, which has been organised by Milne and her friend Fiona Houston, who are joint authors of foraging reference book, Seaweed and Eat It.

The theme of this lesson seems particularly timely, as many of us will be spending our summer holidays "a-la-plage" in the UK this year. Armed with the right knowledge, there's no reason why more of us couldn't head out at low tide with wellies on, bucket in hand, looking for dinner.

You see, what this lot really, really want to find is a lobster. This is possible, but not guaranteed, as Milne says: "It's a bit like going on safari, you're not always going to see a leopard."

We'll be far luckier if we think vegetarian as, in contrast, edible algae is everywhere. If we want to harvest it, we're told that we have to avoid effluent (EU Blue Flag beaches, like the one at Elie, are preferable), only pick living seaweed and cut the plants with scissors, so they can regenerate. Aside from that, go crazy. After all, as Milne says, "You can eat all varieties of seaweed, it's just that some taste better than others."

The first species that we stumble upon is flat-stranded kelp, which can be found in huge quantities on almost every British beach. It looks a bit like discarded Super 8 film reel and can be used to wrap sushi, or flavour the Oriental cooking stock, dashi. As Milne says; "My Chinese friend was gobsmacked that we don't eat it."

The unseasoned flavour isn't, however, the most compulsively delicious thing we've ever tried. My boyfriend, Rolf, chews a corner, before describing it as "salty apple skin". I concur, although, one of the dogs that's tagging along on our session, an elderly bull terrier named Myrtle, can't stop gorging herself on this iodine-rich plant.

"That's a good sign that it's fresh," says Houston.

Perhaps Myrtle is lacking in vitamins as, despite its lack of flavour, kelp is packed with nutrients. This makes it of special interest to one of today's participants, Tara Graham, 36, from St Andrews. She was diagnosed with diabetes last October and has found that the raw (or live) food diet, which can be supplemented with foodstuffs such as seaweed, is improving her symptoms.

"There's nothing like seaweed for its vitamin and mineral content. It's unbelievable," she explains. "Since I've started the raw food diet, my cuts heal faster and I feel much healthier."

While Graham is doing this course for health reasons, others are hunting for a taste sensation, sous-chef, Damien Ring, 27, and chef-de-partie William Boyter, 28, both of whom work at the Michelin-starred Number One Restaurant in Edinburgh, are hoping to stumble upon the latest trendy ingredient.

"We found the Forage Rangers course online," explains Boyter. "We've already got scallops with samphire on our restaurant menu, and we like using plants such as sea spinach. We just want to know more."

So far, however, my tastebuds are not being tickled. I've also sampled the deep-maroon feathery-edged carrageen (or Irish moss), which is often used to thicken soups and stews (but doesn't taste like much to me) and sugar-wrack which, according to Houston, can be candied, pickled or used in salads.

Even the Forage Rangers' favourite, dulse, which, according to them, was "a major food source in the UK for centuries" is relatively unremarkable-tasting on its own. However, they explain that, once prepared, it's much tastier.

"It looks decidedly unappetising at the moment," says Houston. "But it can be chopped and eaten fresh, or dried, to be rehydrated when needed." Her book, Seaweed and Eat It, recommends that we: "Try dulse chopped into creamy mashed potato, scrambled egg or a fish pie."

We also discover plenty of laver (or nori), which is used to make the traditional Welsh dish, laverbread.

It is, however, on grey rocks, which are upholstered in what looks like a zebra-stripe pattern (created by baby mussels that are seeding themselves into the surface), that we discover a gourmet sensation - tiny sprigs of pepper dulse. This bobble-budded plant is forcing its way out of the cracks in the surface and its flavour is fantastic, like bionic garlic with a saline kick.

As we carefully negotiate our way beyond the rocky outcrop and onto the headland, our second exciting find is Scots lovage, which is springing out of a bank of small grey rocks. We trepidatiously take a bite of one of this plant's serrated leaves, and find it tastes like a slightly bitter celery/parsley hybrid. We imagine that this would be the perfect partner for fish, as would a nearby crop of scurvy weed, which has the same flavour profile as wasabi.

We're also fascinated by bladder wrack which, Milne and Houston explain, is farmed commercially for the beauty industry. If you squeeze one of the tiny pods that grow along the length of this plant, a sappy odourless substance similar to aloe-vera oozes out. Voila! - you have a hand balm that's as efficient as Clarins' finest (well, almost).

So, although lobsters and crabs might be elusive or undersized today, it seems that one can still find plenty of free food (and beauty products) at the seaside. For now, however, we are bagging up our shoreline cuttings, and heading for Anstruther Fish Bar.

A combination of sea air and exercise doesn't half stimulate one's appetite.

For details of future courses, see; Seaweed and Eat It, 10.99, Virgin Books.

&#149 This article was first published in The Scotsman, Saturday August 14, 2010