I’d like to be able to say that squatting over a tidal pool at low tide, fingering kelp and tugging at mussels holding fast to rocks, made me feel like a kid again. The truth is – at least at first — I felt exactly how I felt as a kid….self-conscious and eyeing all the foragers around me to see if I was selecting the right kelp.
Of course, it might’ve been because I was also fighting the wind for my hat, scribbling notes, holding a basket with scissors and my sea harvest, and trying to take bloggable foraging photos. Only when I gave up on everything non-forage related — after my iPhone’s near drowning — did appearances begin to matter less. And, I relaxed enough to feel the simple happiness of having my feet and hands in a vibrant underwater world.
This is part of foraging’s beauty, says Roushanna Gray, the enthusiastic forager and cook who takes groups onto Scarborough Beach and introduces them to the ocean’s edibles. “It’s nice to watch grownups play.” It’s also nice to experience getting your food directly from nature.
Roushanna lives and works at Good Hope Gardens Nursery just outside of Scarborough, and I think it’s pretty accurate to say she’ll try to cook anything she’s picked from land or sea at least once, after identifying the species for edibility!
She kicked off our coastal forage with a talk about responsible harvesting: rules to follow, such as always make sure you are collecting from unpolluted waters and that there is no red tide (if you are collecting mussels). Never collect seaweed that is floating or washed up on the shore; you should harvest only that which is attached to a rock. Never pull seaweed off a rock; rather cut pieces off with scissors, leaving the plant firmly attached to the rock for regrowth, and never cut more than 1/3 of the plant. Only pick what you need. This ensures you don’t destroy a whole ecosystem by wiping out its vital kelp. Lastly, watch your back, especially when pulling the bigger mussels off rocks close to wipe-out waves.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T…that pretty much spells out what coastal foraging is all about.
Then we got down to specifics, like choosing Mediterranean mussels over the other two indigenous types found in the Cape. Mediterranean mussels taste better, and sustainably speaking, outcompete the indigenous ones – therefore they’re the ones you want. We talk about kelp, the ‘New’ superfood loaded with vitamins, minerals and iodine. Kelp (Ecklonia maxima) grows up to 3 cm (just over an inch) per day: it’s the fastest growing seaweed in the world, which makes it highly sustainable to forage for.
There are some 720 different species of seaweed on South Africa’s coastlines, and out of those, there’s only one you shouldn’t eat: the dreaded acid weed, which is filled with sulphuric acid. When I hear this, I’m slightly unnerved, but figure the odds are against my being poisoned.
A brief historical interlude: it’s important to note as Roushanna does in her handout that our Paleaeolithic ancestors on South Africa’s coastline lived in caves near the sea and while they caught and ate land animals, they had a steady supply of mussels, abalone and other shellfish. So sea foraging is nothing new here; just rediscovered.
We harvest mussels, sea lettuce (called ulva) and kelp. Then farther up the rocks, we get a primer on cooking with nori, “a great source of protein”; kelp, which can be used in sheets like lasagne or cut into tagliatelle pasta with a pasta machine; and agar, the sea plant with vegetarian friendly gelatine.
We then head over to Roushanna’s mother-in-law’s home, where we prepare lunch with our harvest. My team makes a soft seaweed and couscous salad, with sea lettuce and mermaid’s hair, tossed in an Asian dressing. Another prepares a huge pot of mussels in a garlicky cream sauce. Others make coleslaw with wrack, a seaweed with many branches. We all throw together a platter of kelp and sea lettuce rolls, filled with rice, avocado and radishes.
We sit down to eat at the long outdoor table where we’ve just prepped, and Roushanna supplements lunch with some outrageously good nori chips she’s made (incredibly, they are made in just seven minutes in the oven with only nori, oil and salt) and later, chocolate umami ice cream (also made with kelp). It’s all delicious.
All through lunch, I’m still learning. That the mussels with orange flesh are female, and the lesser spotted black-fleshed mussels are male. And how Roushanna, who has a mixed Cape Malay, Jewish, Christian, Scottish and Lithuanian background got into coastal foraging.
About 10 years ago, Roushanna, a foodie who knew little about plants, married into an indigenous nursery business. She started a tea garden for customers, baking rooibos cupcakes and honeybush cake from teabags. All the while, she felt a disconnect from these ingredients, which propelled her towards experimenting with indigenous edible plants.
Then, in 2012, she met Japanese cyclist Hiromu Jimbo, who was cycling around the world. He stayed with her family for three months. She was curious about how every day, he’d supplement his diet of mostly canned fish and vegetables with sea vegetables, which he’d forage for on the beach. She asked him to cook her some traditional Japanese seaweed dishes, and was immediately hooked. “I couldn’t believe how diverse the flavours and textures were.” She took it to the next level, engaging seaweed scientist Rob Anderson to help familiarise her with the different species in local rock pools.
Since then, she’s been playing in the kitchen. With seaweed, it’s as much if not more about texture, than flavour, she says. Through experimentation, she’s worked out how long to cook it, as well as how to preserve, dry and pickle. She loves blasting preconceived notions that seaweed is gooey and slimy.
And showing its culinary potential: this week she took some of the area’s best chefs on a coastal forage, including a few from Luke Dale-Roberts’ restaurants (The Test Kitchen, The Pot Luck Club, Naturalis) and The Table (at De Meye winery in Stellenbosch) as well as veteran forager Kobus van der Merwe of Paternoster’s Oep ve Koek. “All chefs love cooking with the freshest foods,” she says. Which means we’ll probably be seeing a lot more foraged sea vegetables on Cape Town restaurant menus.
Want to forage? You need a permit, obtainable from any South African Post Office for R95. With it, you can harvest as much as 30 mussels and 10kg of kelp per day.
Roushanna offers two Coastal Foraging courses a month during the warmer months, from November through March. She also offers indigenous edible plant foraging courses and is generally a great source for cooking/foraging know-how: check out her blog and Instagram page — @goodhopegardens.