The pandemic may have shrunk our lives over the past year, but it also opened our eyes to the natural world like never before. Tapping into our deepest primal instincts, foraging is about so much more than hunting for wild food. In many ways it is a moving meditation, a way of celebrating what each season brings and finding headspace in a constantly switched-on age.
And where better to do it than the wild west of Pembrokeshire and St Davids, privileged with access to a huger swathe of crinkle-cut coastline than almost anywhere in Britain, sitting bang in the middle of a headland bounded by over twenty miles of shoreline for which it is the only access point.
While forging off alone to forage in remote, wild places is unrivalled, enlisting a guide with a keen, experienced eye, who knows the local area like the back of their hand, is worth its weight in gold if you’re new to foraging. And so it is on a bright summer day between lockdowns that we find ourselves in the company of Julia and John of Wild About Pembrokeshire, a passionate pair remarkably in tune with nature, the tides and the bounty of wild food that can be found on Pembrokeshire’s seashore and in its hedgerows – imparting their knowledge on insightful day walks, rockpool encounters and wild picnics.
While we’ve foraged along this coast on many occasions, we want to learn more about edible seaweeds – a subject close to Julia and John’s heart. So together with a small, socially-distanced group, we slip on waterproof shoes, grab Tupperware boxes and head down to the quietest stretch of broad Whitesands Bay near St Davids.
We pick long strings of sea spaghetti which, Julia assures us, is one of the easiest kinds to prepare at home, and prise dark, slippery strands of laver, that most famous of Welsh seaweeds, from the rocks.
“You can eat any seaweed on the beach,” says Julia. “None of it is poisonous. We use up to a dozen varieties. But preparing it is certainly a labour of love. It can take between six to twelve hours to slow cook it until it is edible, but the taste is wonderful and the health benefits are many. And it can be frozen and kept in small pots. Or you can invest in a dehydrator. In many ways drying seaweed is more practical as it takes up less space and you can later rehydrate it as and when you need it.
“All the world’s problems can be solved right here,” chimes in John, nodding to the seaweed-entangled rocks. “Aches, pains, arthritis – iodine deficiency. Biofuels for the aviation industry. Global hunger. You name it. Our ancestors would have known about these super powers but we have lost this knowledge and need to relearn it.”
As the waves hammer the shore, we gulp in the iodine-rich sea air and gaze out to the shimmering horizon with gratitude, relishing the freedom of the coast with newfound wonder. With the cold sea slapping our ankles, we readily immerse ourselves in the language, textures and colours of seaweed, while gathering laver, sea lettuce, sea spaghetti, gutweed, kelp and wrack from the shore with increasing curiosity and confidence. Some are thin, frilly, as fine as lace, others are as thick as rubber and ink black. It is a whole world unto itself. And only as you learn to differentiate can you comprehend just how diverse seaweeds are.
Beyond the wild food they find, Julia and John stress how foraging ignites our deepest intuition and reconnects us with the natural world. “You would be amazed what is in the sea in Pembrokeshire,” continues John, as we step among the rockpools. “We see turtles and sunfish, dolphins, whales, porpoises, and an incredible variety of seabirds while out foraging.”
Here,” says Julia, handing me some saw wrack. “Pop this in your bath. It releases its gel in hot water. A home spa treatment. But make sure you pop it in a muslin bag or you’ll never get rid of the stuff.”
The hour we spent with Wild About Pembrokeshire is an excellent foraging primer and we round out the afternoon with delicious seaweed brownies (which you can also sample at their Really Wild Emporium in St Davids) and more seaweed talk. John and Julia go into raptures about pepper dulse, found on the exposed rocks at low tide. This is the caviar of seaweeds and we try some. It is intense, rich and truffle-like, with a profound umami flavour.
We leave the beach and its glittering waves behind, look at our little box filled with wrack, sea spaghetti and kelp and know that we’ll be back before long for some of that pepper dulse…
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NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Whitesands Bay, you can also start a lovely leg-stretch along the coast path to the far-prettier beach of Porthmelgan, St David’s Head and Carn Llidi or call it a night and check into a beautiful converted priory, Penrhiw Hotel (both a short walk away!)
At a glance
How to get there: Locations vary (you’ll be told where to meet when booking) but are mostly centred around St Davids in Pembrokeshire, reached on the A487 from the east (which is everywhere else, as St Davids is also the most westerly settlement in Wales). Two common locations are Whitesands Bay, 2.5 miles northwest of St Davids, and Caer Bwdy Bay, just south of St Davids.
Best time to visit: What you can find depends very much on the season, which runs from spring to autumn (May to October). Having said that, the seaweeds mentioned here can be found year-round.
Booking: Courses vary in length and scope, from family rockpool foraging (per adult/child £20/8) to four-hour seashore foraging and wild picnics (£40 per person). Private walks and courses can also be arranged on request.
For more details, see the Wild About Pembrokeshire Facebook page.
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