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Recently Dan and I have been out foraging a couple of times for shellfish along the part of the Thanet coastline that faces the North Sea, east of the Thames Estuary between Herne Bay and Margate. Once Iron Age settlements, the coastline is flatter than the beaches around Ramsgate and Broadstairs (which lie on the far eastern tip beside the English Channel and are only 30 miles or so from France) and are muddier too. Be prepared for your feet to sink into the sand.

Until around 200 years ago, the Isle of Thanet was separated from mainland Kent when the channel between the two became silted up. Formerly part of the channel, the area to the west of Birchington village, between Birchington and Herne Bay, is now low-lying marshland. To the beaches east of Birchington are chalk cliffs and cliff stacks at Grenham Bay, Beresford Gap and Epple Bay, and a sea wall along the foot of the cliffs inhibits further erosion. The geology of the Isle of Thanet mostly consists of chalk, deposited when the land lay below the sea. The Isle became exposed above sea-level once the English Channel emerged between Kent and France and the sea-level declined. Today, the entire north-east Kent coast is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

I guess you could say I belong to the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall School of cuisine, in that I believe that foraged food when it is wild and in season is food at its best, and once prepared in a dish one can really taste the difference and the freshness of the ingredients.

Two or three pieces of equipment and attire are absolutely necessary when out foraging. Firstly, a pair of wellies as you should expect to get caked in mud; secondly, a waterproof jacket in case of wind and rain; thirdly, a bucket of seawater for shellfish and/or a trug for gathering edible plants such as samphire and Alexanders; and lastly, if you enjoy oysters exactly as they come, an oyster shucker with which to open the oysters so you can savour their salty freshness straight from the sea. As you pick the shellfish, and if you are not eating any oysters immediately, pop them straight into your bucket of seawater and be careful not to spill or tip over your bucket on the way home.

The best time to forage for shellfish is at low tide and, whatever you do, never forage during the summer months from May to August as this is their main growing season. It is safer to harvest your mussels, oysters, winkles and slipper limpets from the rockpools rather than on the beach itself and take only the larger, more mature mussels and oysters, leaving the little ones to continue growing. The beards of the mussels should be visible and the shells closed, and the oyster shells should also be closed. If they are ‘resting’ and slightly open touch them gently to check that they are alive; their shells should close. If this does not happen then they are dead and are to be avoided.

Always forage at a low or receding tide, as if the tide is coming in you can very quickly be cut off from the mainland and stranded, putting yourself at risk of drowning and in need of rescue. Remember that the sea is as merciless as she is beautiful and takes no prisoners with her power. If you are unsure or something doesn’t feel right, head back to shore immediately for your own safety and that of others.

Also remember not to forage during a ‘Red Tide’, which is when the algae bloom can taint bivalves – such as clams, oysters, mussels and scallops – and is highly toxic if consumed. The surface of the water will have a red or brown tinge.

Once we had gathered sufficient oysters, mussels and slipper limpets in our bucket of seawater we made our way back to the car and home.

The preparation of wild seafood is a lengthy one. Oysters, mussels and limpets, for example, will need to be left to soak in a large bowl or bucket of fresh water for at least 30 minutes, in order to ‘purge’ themselves and filter out some of the sand. Wild mussels in particular are very sandy and bearded and they and oysters are normally covered with mini barnacles. If one fails to soak mussels for sufficient time, sand will still be trapped in the mollusc once it is cooked and will be unpleasant to eat. However, do not keep mussels or oysters in fresh water for a prolonged time otherwise they will die.

If you do not wish to eat mussels and oysters right away, you may store them dry in a single layer in the refrigerator, placing a damp kitchen towel over them. Alternatively, you may store them in a perforated tray OVER ice in the refrigerator but never IN ice, or they will die and will be unsafe to eat. Discard any that have cracked shells. Remember, if shells are slightly open, tap gently and they should close. If they do not, then they are no longer alive.

When our shellfish had been soaking for 30 minutes, Dan removed them from the fresh water and scraped and scrubbed off the barnacles under running water and removed the beards from the mussels by grabbing the brown threads between his fingers and pulling them firmly but carefully back and forth and from side to side, easing them away from the hinge. He then returned the cleaned mussels and oysters in a separate container of cold water to continue filtration.

Native to the East coast of North America, Slipper limpets are a kind of sea snail and are an invasive species in the UK and Europe, known to damage oyster beds, thus providing even more of an excuse to eat them. They must not be used as bait or thrown back into the sea because of the damage they cause. Their Latin name is Crepidula Fornicata, but they have many other names including common Atlantic slippersnail, boat shell, fornicating slipper snail and Atlantic Slipper Limpet, and they fasten together in stacks. The smaller shells at the top of the stack are male and the ones at the bottom are female. As the stack grows, the males transform into females and can thus be defined as sequential hermaphrodites. Shells vary in size from 20mm to 50mm, and the maximum recorded shell length is 56mm.

The slipper limpet sea snail has an arched, rounded shell, inside of which is a white “deck” making the shell look like a boat or slipper. Some shells are more arched than others. If you see a single slipper limpet on the shore it will more than likely be dead.

The slipper limpet has almost no predators in Europe and can flourish on several types of hard bottoms and shellfish banks. Thankfully, further expansion to the north is most likely inhibited by low temperatures during the winter which can slow down its development. There have been attempts in France – notably at Mont St Michel, Brittany – to harvest and market the snail, as it is nutritious and versatile and is similar to a cockle in taste and texture. They have a high protein, yellow disc of meat approximately one inch wide and can be eaten raw or gently cooked.

After their filtration Dan removed them carefully from their shells and set them aside. I put them on top of a cheese and tomato pizza, along with some mussels, and finished the pizza with coriander, chilli, tomatoes and a drizzle of garlic-infused olive oil and some freshly ground black pepper, and baked the pizza in oven at 200C fan for around 8-10 minutes, by which time the dough and toppings were cooked through and the mussels had opened.

Slipper limpets and mussels can be gently steamed and their liquor boiled down into stock or broth and the liquor itself can be used as a substitute for clam juice.

Be careful when preparing oysters and, whatever you do, never use a sharp knife to open, or ‘shuck’, their shells as it is dangerous to do so and you will probably break off the tip of the knife. If you do not possess an oyster knife, or shucker, use a screwdriver instead. An oyster knife is short, thick and blunt and a good one can be bought via. Ebay for under £12.00. It is also advisable to wear an apron, to avoid getting dirty.

Hold the oyster curved-side down on a chopping board, keeping a folded tea towel between the shell and your hand, to help you get a good grip and protect your hand. Locating the hinge between the top and bottom shell, insert the knife tip into the crack, push hard and gradually prise off the top shell. This may take a little while and patience may be needed, but just take your time to avoid getting flustered. Once you have prised the shell open, discard the top shell. If there is any seawater in the bottom shell with the oyster, endeavour to keep it there and pick out any fragment of shell. If you are eating the shellfish raw, place the oysters on a plate around a heap of rock salt or crushed ice, season it with a little freshly ground black pepper, a dash of lemon juice and Tabasco sauce, for example, and tip the oyster into your mouth, savouring its salty freshness.

Another good way of eating oysters is by baking them. Dan doesn’t like raw oysters, likening them to ‘swallowing snot’. After shucking the oysters, we placed them on a baking tray and I garnished them with some freshly chopped chilli, grated cheddar, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, tomatoes, chopped coriander and a drizzle of garlic oil and popped them into a fan oven at 200C for about 15 minutes until they were cooked through and the cheese was bubbling. Served with some good granary spelt bread from the local baker’s they made him a hearty, nutritious supper.

You could also top the oysters with some chopped smoked bacon or pancetta, or simply some breadcrumbs and perhaps a little pesto or tapenade. The possibilities are endless; all you need is a little imagination and courage to experiment.

As for us, we shall be foraging again and trying out some new recipe ideas.

 

Catherine