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No.7 Foraging for Food

As I put pen to paper to recall my foraging expereince, I am just around the corner from the former St. Vincent hospital in New York where, in November 1953 at the age of 39, the Welsh Poet Dylan Thomas passed away. Along with Richard Burton, he is one of the most well-known sons of Wales.

On December 14, 1944, nine years before Thomas’ legendary drinking got the better of him, he recorded a reading for the BBC of a wonderfully lyrical description he wrote of the quaint village of New Quay on the south coast of Wales where he was in residence at the time.

“Who lived in these cottages? I was a stranger to the sea town, fresh or stale from the city where I worked for my bread and butter wishing it were Laver-bread and country salty butter yolk-yellow Fishermen certainly; no painters but of boats: no man-dressed women with shooting-sticks and sketch-books and voices like macaws to paint the reluctant heads of critical and sturdy natives who posed by the pint against the chapel-dark sea which would be made more blue than the bay of Naples, though shallower.”

Foraging for Food in Wales | Bearleader No.7

Reading Thomas’ words now transports me to my recent trip to the very spot where those words were recorded, and my first hearing of the term “laver-bread” (pronounced LAW-ver). I was on my way to a small patch of Welsh coast known as Fresh Water West, to meet chef and expert at seaside foraging, Jonathan Williams.

When I contacted Jonathan about foraging for food with him, I had no idea what to expect. I arrived at the beach early in the morning at low tide according to Jonathan’s instructions. The beach and surrounding area is part of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. If you are a fan of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you will have seen Fresh Water West. The shell cottage was located right on this extraordinarily wide beach where I now stood.

Foraging for Food in Wales | Bearleader No.7

Jonathan’s Cafe Mor (mor means “sea” in Welsh) at Fresh Water West is open daily during the summer season from May to mid-September. They serve fresh food, mostly sourced locally, and a range of packaged goods under Jonathan’s brand, Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company.

Fresh Water West is a nature reserve so no fixed structures are allowed in the park. Cafe Mor, therefore, is on wheels arriving in tow early each morning.

I ventured out onto the beach and across the tidal pools with Jonathan, on his daily harvest. Rocky outcrops divide the vast areas of flat sandy beach, with grass-covered dunes behind. On the day of my visit, the sky mirrored the landscape with spacious blue interrupted regularly by fluffy clouds drifting by making for a dramatic and constantly evolving light show.

This stretch of beach is perfect for foraging, an edible feast of seaweed. Jonathan took me through the different habitats, each with its own characteristic seaweed species. Some of the varieties we sampled were Sea Spaghetti, Sea Moss-Caragheen, Dulse and Laver-bread or Bara lawr, as it is called in Welsh. If you’ve had Sushi, you have had Laver-bread. In Japan seaweed is washed, dried and flattened into sheets called Nori. Laver-bread in Wales is prepared in a very different and much moister form.

When I contacted Jonathan about foraging for food with him, I had no idea what to expect. I arrived at the beach early in the morning at low tide according to Jonathan’s instructions.

In fact just behind where Jonathan forages, you can see one of the original seaweed drying huts. It has been restored by the national trust as a reminder of this important local food source in the history of Wales. At the height of the local Laver-bread industry, there were as many as 20 huts along the beach, each one maintained by a local family from the nearby town of Angle. Seaweed harvesting was a thriving cottage industry in the area throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and was still in operation as recently as 1950.

Foraging for Food in Wales | Bearleader No.7

The first recorded Laver-bread description was written by William Camden in his work, Britannia. There he vividly describes the springtime harvesting of Laver-bread at the beach of Eglwys Abernon, dating back to 1607. In 1862 we find another mention, from the writer George Borrow, who wrote in Wild Wales, that he ate “moor mutton” with piping hot Laver sauce. In recent years Laver-bread seems to have fallen from favor, but with renewed interest in the reviving of old customs and traditions it is coming back and can now be found on the menus of some of the more interesting UK restaurants.

One person described Laver-bread to me as the Welshman’s caviar. It is black, salty and has a very distinct taste, but that’s about as far as it goes. So how do you eat Laver-bread? Typically the raw seaweed is boiled for about 40 minutes until it breaks down. Then it is layered out to drain away all the excess moisture. It is served as a side dish in a kind of stewed or fried form with many local foods such as cockles, sausage, or bacon and eggs, which makes for a very hearty breakfast. Laver-bread is exceptionally healthy, containing iron, iodine and over 50 vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, C and D as well as some B-Complex. Laver-bread was a dietary staple for hard-working miners who would take it with them into the pit for flavor and energy.

At the lowest tide, the rocks furthest out are revealed. And this is where you find some of the most interesting seaweed delicacies. Wading around in water up to our knees, Jonathan pointed out a variety called Dulse, and picked a sample for me to try. He handed me a bunch of small purple colored fronds and asked me, “What it taste like”. It was familiar, but when you are eating raw seaweed while standing in a big puddle it is hard to put the flavor in context. When Jonathan said, “It is also called the truffle of the sea,” it clicked. It really does taste just like truffles with a touch of pepper and, as it grows marinating in salt water half of every day and night, it really is pre-seasoned to perfection. It’s delicious.

Foraging for Food in Wales | Bearleader No.7

Jonathan opened my eyes to the great variety of flavors growing in the tides. Eating sushi, I had never really noticed the taste of Nori. It seemed more of an edible container rather than an actual food itself. Now I see it in a whole different light. The different seaweeds Jonathan showed me were all amazingly flavorful, with distinct and, surprisingly, non-“seaweedy” flavors.

We foraged for about two hours, taking in the natural environment and tasting as we walked. It’s a totally unique and delightful experience. You can arrange a foraging excursion with Jonathan via his website https://www.beachfood.co.uk/). He will show you some amazing things the sea has to offer, tell great stories … and provide a picnic to boot.

A note of caution: It is prohibited to forage on your own. You need a license, and expertise, to ensure that the seaweed is harvested in a way that keeps it growing for future generations. Jonathan is an accomplished forager and licensed to harvest.

After our trek through the tidal pools, Jonathan prepared one of Cafe Mor’s signature dishes, a seashore wrap: pan-fried flatbread with Pembrokeshire bacon, cockle and laver-bread mixed with egg and cream—absolutely delicious! And it was packed with enough energy to fuel a long walk along the dunes to enjoy the rest of the wonderful scenic views.

Foraging for Food in Wales | Bearleader No.7

As the tide came in, the beach grew smaller and smaller and the rocks slowly disappeared, immersing all that seaweed in the swirling waves to grow again for another harvest.

Details

Foraging: Jonathan runs both scheduled and private foraging trips. Check the Website for scheduled times and be sure to book early, the groups fill up fast. Costs start from: £25 per adult, £10 per child (Under 12’s), Free for kids 5 years or under. Email Jonathan directly to arrange a private foraging event.

Cafe Mor at Fresh Water West: Opening times follow the parks schedule. And be aware that times may vary from day to day. So its best to check their Twitter feed for the latest.

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Planning a trip to Pembrokeshire in Wales? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.

46°
clear sky
81% humidity
wind: 13m/s WNW
H 48 • L 43
47°
Mon
45°
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45°
Wed
45°
Thu
46°
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Weather from OpenWeatherMap