On a summer’s afternoon in the kitchen garden of Llys Meddyg – an old doctor’s surgery turned-restaurant, bar and hotel in the coastal Pembrokeshire village of Newport – I’m eating the most delicious bowl of pasta I’ve had for ages. The sauce makes it, incredibly green, grassy and fresh. Its freshness has a reason: we found the ingredients ourselves two hours ago.
The idea of seaside foraging is a wildly fashionable, romantic, if slightly treacherous thing. Can you really pick seaweed off that watery rock, and turn it into a starter? Is that really a buckthorn berry or something more dangerous? It’s always best to enlist the help of an expert to find out. Ours is Ed Sykes. He’s run foraging courses from Llys Meddyg for over fifteen years.
Ed’s an amiable, easy-going guide, meandering down the lane down to the coast that runs alongside his hotel, pointing out the plants and their magical properties to my little boy, my husband and myself on the way. Here’s the pink rosa rogosa flower, a bright, tasty addition to a salad. Here is elderflower, which works well mixed with lemon as a cure for salmon. (It’s also what Llys Meddyg put into their signature gin cocktails. I have one later – it fizzes and pops. Even better, we collected twelve heads of elder for it ourselves, the chefs mixing it with boiled water, sugar and lemon.)
In the seaside hedgerows, Ed spots lots of Alexanders, a versatile plant with edible yellow flower heads and stems, and peppery seeds. He holds the box up to my son: in they go. So do nettles and thistles (you get rid of the spikes, Ed explains – they taste like asparagus), pea pennywort and lemon sorrel, both of which will go into our lunch. If we’ve got any left, I think at the time, given how much of them are being scoffed by the three of us.
As we approach the water, I’m reminded how Wales is far from a trendy newcomer regarding foraged seaside food. I was born and bred a few miles away from the muddy flats of Penclawdd on Gower, from which the bulk of South Wales’ famous cockles have come for centuries. Tub-loads still sell locally, in Swansea Market, and beyond.
Then there’s laverbread, made from edible seaweed washing up on the Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire coasts. Its taste – full of iron, with a tang not unlike olives and oysters – divides opinion, but us sensible souls love it, with bacon if you’re a carnivore, or meaty mushrooms if you’re not (my Grandma used to ladle spoonfuls of it onto my plate as a child). Big Welsh brands include Parsons, based out of Burry Port, and the wonderful Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company, based out of Castlemartin.
They’ve transformed the way laverbread is thought about in contemporary cooking, and their products use it in delicious new ways. As well as selling it in jars (it’s premium mix is called, brilliantly, Welshman’s Caviar), it’s incorporated into Captain Cat’s Mor Seasoning (a lovely herb and spice mix inspired by the character from Dylan Thomas’ seadog in Under Milk Wood), their 4% Cwrwgl stout, and their Welsh Sea Black Butter, which goes down a treat in lobster rolls and crab sandwiches. These are sold in the Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company’s Café Mor, a food shack in the beautiful seaside spot of Freshwater West, open between Easter and October (see their website for details).
But you can also find more unusual delicacies down by the sea. On Newport’s Parrog beach today, we find honeysuckle by the ancient Lime Kiln, and sup on its edible nectar. Over the dunes towards Newport Sands, there’s sea aster with its distinctive bright purple flowers. Sea aster tastes like samphire, but saltier, Ed explains. “It’s perfectly seasoned – we’re so lucky to have it growing so much around here.” This will form the basis of our pasta sauce.
Ed often finds sea beet around here as well, he adds – its leaves go perfectly with Welsh saltmarsh lamb – as well as wild cabbage, fennel, oysters and clams in the winter. It’s enough to make me come back for a re-run.
We head home over the dunes, past the waves, our boxes of foraged foods full to bursting, back to Llys Meddyg. Ed’s mum – one of the kitchen’s main chefs – quickly gets to work as we enjoy early afternoon sunshine in the kitchen garden. And only half an hour later, lunch emerges, all-conquering: spaghetti in a vivid green, buttery sauce, followed by our elderflower refreshers. We have seconds. We’re stuffed. Our happy bellies filled to the brim, we’re proof that seaside foraging’s history has a healthy, hearty future.
Please take care! Wild food foraging should only be undertaken with a guided expert.