A day’s foraging for prawns, crabs and mussels is just as delightful as the feast they will yield, says Tom Godber-Ford Moore
Master the art of seafood foraging, and you’ll land yourself with a summer supper to savour, says Tom Godber-Ford Moore.
Find out how to make oyster and asparagus fitto misto with black olive dip — a delicious Italian seafood dish to enjoy in the sun.
There’s no need to stop for lunch when elevenses with oomph will keep everyone fuelled until supper time. Try Philippa Davis’ heather honey partridge skewers with blue cheese dip.
THE JOY OF SEAFOOD FORAGING
If you happened to be strolling along the shore of what we now know as Happisburgh, Norfolk, over 800,000 years ago, along the estuary of what might have been the original course of the Thames, your eye might have been caught by a few windswept figures, no doubt armed with sapling-based basket nets and poles. These hunter-gatherers were most likely Homo antecessor, perhaps on their way back from a coastal forage to the predator-safe haven of their estuary-island settlement.
Fast forward the best part of a million years and their footprints are discovered, neatly preserved in the silty mudflats, by a group of excitable scientists. They would have been gathering shellfish, molluscs and seaweeds of the same sort we dine on to this day, and
the thought of gathering these delights now, in an almost identical fashion to those hungry hominids of yore, brings out a sense of primal well-being that is nigh on unsurpassable. It gives the clever flex of the rod an uncouth air, and makes the ease of trigger-pulling positively vulgar.
At the end of a good day’s foraging, I can return with a bag of tricks arguably more delicious and diverse than that of a mixed day’s shooting, with just as much sport had by all. Of all the myriad delights that can be found – from salty-sweet cockles to razor clams – my own favourite has to be the prawn. It is my go-to quarry for a fresh-faced coastal hunter, requiring so little kit and being in abundance, but giving as it does a real sporting chase – and one of the finest suppers the sea has to offer.
The first thing you need to think about is when to go – and here you are in luck. The prawns, like you, will head for the shoreline in their hordes during the summer months, and whether you preoccupy yourself with more sedate activities or otherwise, they are there to breed. Somewhat traditional individuals, they tend to keep this for the dark hours, meaning during the day they can be found collectively gathering their strength in the cool crevices of a low tide. I like to head out about two hours before the low tide, ideally at its spring, when it will be at its lowest – any local shop by the sea worth its salt will have a tide-timetable leaflet.
Towards the end of the summer and right up to late October will be best, as this is when you will find the bigger and better ones. Secondly, think about the place. For a good mixed bag, a beach with a good number of bedrock rock pools, ideally interspersed with sandy-bottomed avenues, will do nicely, with the south and west coasts of the UK being by far the most productive. Do make sure you check not only the potential local dangers of the tide, but also the local by-laws, as these can be as many as they are varied.
Finding yourself at the right place, at the right time, you will next be in need of the right kit. There are three ways to catch prawns, with potting or drop netting being the first two, somewhat dull, methods. But the most excitement is to be found in hand netting. Triangular prawn nets are widely available, and so armed, the only other things you need are a bucket and a good canvas rucksack.
Treacherous as rocky coastlines are, I prefer a bucket with a lid – I can tell you from experience that the last thing you want after a few hours’ concentrated hunting is to lose half your haul to a mere slip or stumble. I have a small hole cut in the lid of mine (an
old mayonnaise tub) to save time. To keep the prawns in good condition, I half fill the bucket with seawater, drained and refilled every half hour, with a few scraps of seaweed to make them feel at home. Do wear a sturdy pair of well-gripped trainers or boots that you don’t mind getting wet, and a thumb stick doesn’t go amiss.
A deep and dark crevice in a sandy-bottomed rock pool, with a little seaweed curtain hanging off the rock, may not sound too appealing to you or me, but it is a prawn’s idea of heaven. Here he will be clinging to the seaweed, minding his business, waiting patiently for the evening’s activities. All you need to do is creep your net quietly along, just above the sandy bottom, to the deepest depth of his hideaway, and slowly slide it up from the bottom of the overhanging rock towards the water level. A little wrist-shaking seems to help, and finally the swish-and-flick flourish skywards, when you will see the fruits of your labour – or the empty net of failure. A good haul will see half a dozen plump and juicy prawns looking indignantly up at you, and though they don’t bite, they can be quite sharp, so pick them up by their whiskers. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But you will soon find yourself silently sliding like a sea snake into that water, and freezing dead if the little blighters spot you. They move with an unnatural multidirectional speed, and soon disappear into
the untouchable depths if they get the upper hand. Keep at it, though, and you will end your foray with some of the sweetest rewards in the natural world.
Your main mission under way, there are a plethora of other delights you may well come across – and can easily catch with the same kit. Bringing in prawns without the occasional shore crab or velvet crab would be very unusual indeed. These somewhat vicious little chaps are incredibly sweet-fleshed, and make some of the finest bisques, soups or shellfish stocks going, to which end they are best suited, being rather short on flesh. Catch them any size, all year. You will also very likely come across some spider crabs, which are at their best in the spring, when they will be in fine and meaty fettle having just returned from the deeper water. As the summer goes on they will be busy shedding their shells, which takes a lot of resources, leaving their flesh somewhat wanting and not really worth it. Don’t take any that measure less than 13cm from the back to the front of the carapace.
Should you be lucky enough to come across a brown crab of legal size (13cm widthways of the carapace), which is admittedly unlikely, these really are a treat. They will more than likely be contemplating quietly in a dark crevice, and for this purpose I carry an old wire coat hanger, which works jolly well for extracting the ungrateful fellow without damaging him. Boil both spiders and browns in well-salted water for 15 to 20 minutes, size dependent, and either serve simply with a good aioli [see previous page], or spice things up with a Singapore chilli crab dish – their natural flavour will stand up well to the spices.
And, finally, there is always that distant Holy Grail of lobster. I have only ever found (the very occasional) lobster at the lowest of spring tides, in fairly deep channels covered in seaweed. Look for his long antennae gently swaying in the water, and go at him like a panther, confidently and quietly from behind. He can swim backwards at an alarming rate when startled. Make sure he is 87mm minimum in carapace length from front to back. I prefer to split lobsters in half lengthways and grill them on a high heat on the barbecue, brushed with plenty of garlic butter.
It is also likely that you will come across a few, or indeed a great deal of, mussels along your route. The old adage of no picking in the summer months (those without an ‘r’) is not simply that of an old wife – the warmer waters can encourage the type of algal bloom that will leave you turning a whiter shade of pale at the sight of one for years to come. Spring and autumn are best, and try only to pick the larger ones.
At low tide on a sandy beach, you may notice a decent number of cockle or clam shells. Using a rake will be far more productive, but collecting this bounty can simply be a matter of spotting the shells poking up through the sand and picking them. The same ‘r’ rule applies to them as to mussels. Be sure to soak them for a few hours or overnight in well-chilled salted water before cooking, to remove the sometimes copious amounts of sand they harbour. All these three will do very nicely simply steamed until opened in a hot pan with garlic and white wine. Discard any that do not open.
Now for the flora. The coastal landscape is a joy for foraging, with sea purslane one of the most widespread plants. The new leaves of late spring are best, but it eats well at any time of year, and the same applies to rock samphire – which, while one of my favourites, is very much a Marmite plant; the fresh carrot notes that I relish remind some people of creosote.
Sea beet, marsh samphire, oraches and sea kale are all to be found during the summer, with their irony-oystery notes delicious with meat and fish alike. Pick the leaves of all the above, blanch in boiling water, then finish in melted butter.
HOW TO COOK YOUR PRAWNS
Once you have found yourself with a good haul of prawns, there are two ways of going about cooking these little treats: boiling or frying. Whichever the case, they must ideally be cooked alive and kicking – or, at the very least, recently deceased.
To boil, salt a pan of water until it is as salty as you might expect the sea to be, and drop your prawns within until the water begins to bubble once more and the prawns have turned pink. Remove to a sieve and rinse quickly with cold water. Eat with the saffron aioli [below] and a good, old-school Muscadet.
Delightful as they are boiled, I find prawns are infinitely more delicious when fried in hot oil and eaten whole, shells, heads and all. It may sound peculiar, but cooked this way the shells become like a shellfishy crispy tempura batter which, when dipped in said aioli, is really something to behold. You will need about 500ml rapeseed oil per handful of prawns, which you will heat in a deep pan until very hot – the temperature at which a piece of bread goes brown in about 20 seconds.
HOW TO MAKE SAFFRON AIOLI
- Pinch of saffron strands
- 3 egg yolks
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tbsp English mustard
- 200ml rapeseed oil
- 150ml extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt
- Lemon juice
- First, place your saffron in a mug and cover with a tablespoon of boiling water.
- Place the egg yolks, garlic and mustard into a bowl and whisk together.
- Slowly, and I mean very slowly, add first the rapeseed oil followed by the olive oil, whisking frantically all the while. You can do this in a food processor if you like.
- Eventually you will begin to have an emulsified mayonnaise, to which you can add the saffron threads and water.
- Season to taste with sea salt and lemon juice.