"Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth."
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
There is something immensely satisfying in creating a meal with ingredients I've either grown myself or sourced locally. Yesterday, I shared such a day with the fifteen odd people attending one of Veld and Sea's coastal foraging courses, organised and presented by Roushanna Gray, our local food pioneer.
I've been looking forward to exploring the rock pools for a meal since I interviewed Roushanna in October last year, and the day arrived as sunny and clear as the tidal ponds on Scarborough Beach where we would be foraging for the day. This kind of activity is right up my alley: I get to be outside, learn something new, meet interesting people and eat like a king, all in one day!
Straight off the bat, Roushanna reminded all of us of the importance of foraging sustainably. Each of us had obtained a mollusk harvesting permit from our local post office, valid for one year. The permit allows you to harvest 30 mussels per day, as well as 10 kg of seaweed - an almost impossible feat! We were encouraged to only harvest what we would be able to eat on the day, and provided with scissors and a netted bag. Foraging ended up being so much fun that most of us returned with brimming bags and embarrassed smirks.
"Guys, this is terrible foraging!" Roushanna joked, probably seeing newbies make the same overenthusiastic mistakes every time.
We harvested seven different types of seaweed. Of the more than 700 types of seaweed that can be found along South Africa's coast, only one isn't edible: acid weed (Desmarestia firma), containing sulphuric acid that will burn and damage the digestive tract. How to tell? The leaves are brown and serrated, and as Roushanna says: "You can try the taste on the tip of your tongue, and if you taste lemons, don't go any further!" Luckily these weeds don't grow on the tide line where we were harvesting, so you're safe if you're sticking to weeds that are attached to the rocks instead of drifting in the shallow water.
Seaweed is classified as a superfood. It provides a dense source of nutrients such as potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, protein and of course iodine. Seaweed has many distinct uses: as food, fertiliser and beauty products. Tongue weed (Gigartina polycarpa), so named because of its rough surface and dark red colour, can be used as an exfoliator, as well as a thickener in soups and stews. Dead man's fingers (Splachnidium rugosum) has within its tubular limbs a transparent, snotty gel that is very good for the skin and is quite soapy when rubbed on the hands.
Wild nori or purple laver (Porphyra capensis), a cousin of the asian nori we're used to seeing wrapped around our Maki rolls, makes a delicious substitute for kale chips - and they grow abundantly on most rocks in the intertidal zone. Hanging wrack (Brassicophycus brassicaeformis), pale brown forests of twigs, can be eaten raw or blanched before putting them in a salad. These little twigs, pretzel like in taste, completely saved my day! I neglected to have breakfast before venturing into the rock pools, and I could pick and nibble all along my searches for seaweed and mussels.
Mussels! We learnt about three of the types to be found along the coast of the Western Cape: The indigenous ribbed mussel (Aulacomya atra), the indigenousblack mussel (Choromytilus meridionalis) and the exotic Mediterranean mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), brought on the hulls of European ships during colonisation and before. Even though the harvesting of the black mussel is allowed with a mollusk permit, it is better practice to pick the exotic Mediterranean mussel, recognisable by its flatter base where it is attached to the rock.
As I waded through the cold water looking for healthy weeds, running my fingers through forests of hanging wrack and pecking at different plants, I felt such pleasure in placing my scissors at the base of a plant, measuring a third so as not to stunt the growth of the weed and mindfully making each snip and thanking the ocean for its generosity. These same waters have been feeding humans and animals alike for millennia asking nothing in return. Feeding off the landscape in such a direct way reminds me of our dependence on the planet, but also in her unwavering ability to keep on providing as long as we stay conscious of and grateful for her gifts.
After we filled our bags, it was time to make lunch. A short walk through the coastal flora (where Roushanna pointed out some dune parsley, almost indistinguishable in taste from the herb we all know and love!) brought us to Gael's Beach Cottage, where we eagerly started washing all the weeds we collected and filled two big bowls with mussels from everyone's bags.
Included in the foraging course are pages of delicious recipes. Roushanna gave us a quick run through and we split into teams. Within an hour, we whipped up seaweed and couscous salad, kelp sushi balls, a delicious mussel pot, wrack cole slaw and everyone's favourite: Nori chips! Many of the extra ingredients were freshly picked from Good Hope Nursery's garden and we ended the meal with exceptional umami ice cream - a wonderfully satisfying dessert with undertones of the sea. For an inventory of some of these recipes, check out Good Hope Nursery's blog here.
After an inspiring day, I am excited to use my mollusk permit regularly to provide fresh meals for myself and friends and spreading the valuable knowledge of our local edible flora and fauna. It is a wonderful way to add seasonal, healthy food to your diet without spending a penny!