Foraging for Cockles on the Welsh Coast

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There is something very rewarding about foraging for your own food, it’s like a treasure hunt for grown ups. I am no expert forager mind you and I would draw the line at foraging for mushrooms. I did a post a few years ago on foraging for samphire which you can read here.

This past week, however, I have been in a corner of Wales that even the locals requested I keep secret for fear that their corner of paradise will be overwhelmed by zealous visitors. The beaches are HUGE – think California expansive – stretching over a couple of miles long. This gives the treasure seeker a wonderful opportunity to forage for tasty goodies.

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We opted for cockles this time, but when I return to Wales I will also try for razor clams as the locals say they are also great to search for when there is a spring tide. Cockles are basically like small clams and you may have had them in southern Spain where they are referred to as ‘coquinas’. They also sell them in seaside towns in Britain, cold in little pots without their shells. That never particularly appealed, but hot with loads of garlic, parsley, lemon juice and zest and spaghetti certainly does.

The day we foraged was a little drizzly (the rest of the week was completely sunny, unlike the rain clouds over London I hear). The tide was a long way out and we searched between the shoreline and the sea. We looked for clues – cockle shells laying scattered on the beach surface and then would dig a hole about 1-2 inches deep and then feel around with our hands. Once you have found a couple you can normally find a whole group of around 10 or so. My daughters and I (Mr B had decided to take himself off for a walk along the 2.5 mile beach instead) lucked out and found over 250 in under an hour and a half. Result.

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We placed them in a pot (bucket is ideal) which we had filled with sea water. Overjoyed with our foraging success we went back to the cottage and let the cockles remain in the sea water overnight to get rid off the grit and sand.

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The following day we then cleaned each cockle and placed them in a bowl of salted water (below). At this point they are still alive and do stretch their limbs beyond the shell from time to time (you can see this happening in fact in the photo above). When you take them out of the water, gently knock the shell and they should close tight shut. If they do not then discard them. We found that there were only 10 or so that were a bit suspect, the remaining 250 were ready for our feast.

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This amount could  easily feed 6 people. We kind of over foraged but seeing as we had cooked them we decided it would be a shame to waste any so ate the lot between the four of us. Piggie I know! Both my daughters (6 and 9) adored them. I am a big believer that if you make a scene about shellfish or any particular kind of food in fact, then your children will too and not want to eat them. If you show them how delicious they are and get stuck in then invariably they will too and not want to be left out.

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We feasted royally and before you ask, we all felt on top form the next day. They are great fun to forage for so have a go when you are next on the British coast.

Cockles with Garlic, Lemon, Parsley and Spaghetti

Serves 4-6 easily

250 cockles (I did not weigh them but guess it is around 1-1.2kg)

1 tbsp butter

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

6 garlic, finely chopped

1 lemon, juice and zest

160ml white wine

2 large handfuls of flat leaf parsley

400g spaghetti

black pepper

  1. Leave the foraged (or not) cockles overnight in salted water – ideally sea water, to allow the sand and grit to be dispelled.
  2. Scrub them clean in the grooves of the shell under running cold water. Make sure they shut firmly. Place in a clean bowl of water with 1 tsp of salt.
  3. Place the spaghetti in a pan of boiling water and simmer for around 10 minutes, then leave in the boiling water until ready to add to the cockle pan (no9)
  4. Heat a large deep pan with the butter and olive oil and when it is hot add the garlic. Keep on a medium low heat.
  5. Once the garlic softens after a couple of minutes, add the lemon zest and stir.
  6. Turn the heat up high and add the cockles. Add the lemon juice, white white and then place the lid on the pan. Shake the pan gently from side to side.
  7. After a minute check to see if some of the shells are opening. Keep the pan moving with the lid on.
  8. After another minute the shells should be open.
  9. Add the spaghetti and the parsley and mix all the ingredients together for 30 seconds before plating up and adding a little black pepper.

Any shells that have not opened then discard – do not try to prize open.


Foraging for Samphire on the British Coast

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June, July and August are the months to forage for marsh samphire, not to be mistaken for rock samphire, which grows on rocks on land and tastes completely different, I am told. Marsh samphire can be found in abundance in salt marshes and tidal mud flats on the British coast. You may have also come across it by one of it’s other names:  glasswort (its name of old alluding to a time when it was used in making glass and soap); sea asparagus; Saint Peter’s herb (the Patron Saint of Fisherman) or it’s rather grand sounding Latin name ‘salicornia europaea’. I particularly like its less well known name of ‘Mermaid’s kiss’.

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A few years back marsh samphire was not so easy to source in the shops, other than the fishmonger who would grace their fish displays with the vegetable from time to time. Recently I have seen it in the larger supermarkets in the UK being sold in packets on their fish counters. It’s relatively expensive for the amount you get, so if you happen to be on the British coast in the summer, it is well worth having a forage for the vegetable.

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I’ve been spending the last week or so on the borders of Suffolk and Essex, which is perfect hunting ground. I initially came across some growing on the mudflats on Mersea Island and immediately gathered a small amount to prepare for when I returned home. The following day we were passing by the picturesque and historical village of Orford in Suffolk – well worth a detour on many levels – Richardson’s smokehouse, the great Pump Street Bakery, some fine pubs, a small castle, a grade I listed church with Norman remains and a sailing club – all civilised places have a sailing club don’t you find? I had read that Orford was the perfect place to forage for marsh samphire, so bucket and scissors in hand Big A, Mr B and I went a foraging.

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It was not long before we spotted the easily identifiable marsh samphire sprouting up through the tidal mudflats. They almost look like miniature cacti, without any spines or sharp bits. When foraging though you need to be very careful not to pull out the whole plant as it will prevent it from growing further. Simply pinch off the top parts or use a pair of scissors, so that the fibrous stems and roots remain intact. You will find that the the samphire needs to be thoroughly washed a couple of times so that the mud, grit and general nasties are disposed of.

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Whilst it can be eaten raw, I like to cook samphire – boil or steam for a couple of minutes, and then eat with a dollop of melting butter and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Absolutely no salt is needed as they taste of the sea so are more than sufficiently salty. They are rich in Vitamins A, C and D and taste  similar to asparagus, albeit more salty!

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They are also a perfect accompaniment for fresh fish and also lamb, although I rather like the way that this blogger has prepared their samphire – see here – Poached Eggs with Samphire and Honey Harissa. How good does that sound?

Are you able to forage samphire near you? Does it grown in your country? How do you eat it? I would love to know so write a comment below for us all to see.

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Fresh Marsh Samphire with Butter and Lemon

A handful of fresh marsh samphire per person

 knob of butter

lemon wedges

1. Trim and wash the marsh samphire a couple of times so that all the mud, grit and stray seaweed is discarded.

2. Boil a large pan of water and place the samphire directly in the water (if steaming put into the steamer). Boil gently for 3 minutes and drain immediately.

3. Plate up and add a knob of butter to each serving and a lemon wedge on the side. Equally you can pre-melt the butter and pour it over the samphire. Both ways work equally well.

Eat immediately when it is hot and enjoy.

Remember no salt is needed.