Rachel Lambert: forager, author, guide
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Wandering the beach near my home in Penzance, I found myself perusing the organic wreckage strewn across the sand after a storm. Mingled amongst the debri of Sea Spaghetti (Himanthalia elongata) and its own roots I found Sea Grass. Looking a little like washed up wild leeks, or green strands of sea weed, this plant is rather unique and important.

A strand of sea grass on the beach

What is Sea Grass?

I first read the words 'Sea Grass' in relation Gutweed, Ulva intestinalis seaweed, it was a term used to describe this long, thin, green seaweed. Who wouldn't re-name Gutweed, lets face it, Sea Grass is a much nicer, but a misleading name. Sea Grass is not a seaweed, nor is it gutweed. Sea Grass is Sea Grass; an actual plant that, unusually and unlike seaweed, roots itself under the sea, forming meadows, almost like underwater fields. I've kayaked over it on the Helford and swum over it on the Isles of Scilly and it is beautiful to see.

I love beauty. I also love function and Sea Grass also has a really important function.

Needless to say I was both pleased and saddened to see it washed up, in abundance on my local beach. Pleased, because it meant that it was, or had been, alive and growing nearby. Sad, because now it was detached from its rooted home and lying dead.

Sea Grass washed up

What's the importance of Sea Grass?

There are over 60 species of Sea Grass (Posidoniaceae, Zosteraceae, Hydrocharitaceae and Cymodoceaceae) worldwide and they provide essential ecosystems for wildlife, produce oxygen and help dissipate waves. Though to me, the most important and stunning function of Sea Grass is that it stores up to 10% of the world's carbon. Seaweeds also help to store carbon. Annually, Sea Grass is considered to lock up 24.7 million tons of carbon. Though some Sea Grasses are at risk, and expected to become extinct.

In times gone by, Sea Grass has been used to stuff mattresses and even used as bandages or fertiliser. Though these days, I think that storing carbon is the most valuable thing it can do for us and the planet. Sea Grass beds (areas where they grow) need protecting, as over 12,000 square miles of Sea Grass have been lost over the last few decades. Activities that contribute to its decline include; over fishing and mechanical disturbance such as motorboat blades disturbing it when moving over shallow water.

Sea Grass washed up

How can we help protect Sea Grass?

Sea Grass provides an amazing bed for biodiversity and is currently disappearing at a rate of 2 football fields an hour. There are several ways we can protect Sea Grass (boat propellers are mentioned above, and awareness of where Sea Grass beds are and tides in relation to this, so not to disturb it at low tide). Other ways include reducing fertilisers and pollution which end up running off into the Sea Grass beds blocking the sun that is needed for the Sea Grass to photosynthesis and reproduce. As well as reducing over C02 consumption, as Sea Grass is also affected by rising sea temperatures, which is linked to climate change. Supporting small scale fishing rather than over fishing, and reducing trawling fishing and bad practice. Finally, sharing the word on the importance of Sea Grass to us and the rest of the ecosystem and wildlife.

Learn about seaweeds and how to protect them

As well as the information above (which also benefits seaweeds), on my seaweed foraging courses I show participants how to harvest seaweeds by hand, for personal use, in a sustainable way. It's one way we can take care of the seaweeds that are taking care of us. I run seaweed foraging courses most months, and you can view courses here on the course calendar.

I'm back on the Isles of Scilly, having survived the boat crossing once again (thank goodness my strategy is still working) and am now above board again and enjoying these beautiful islands again. It's Walk Scilly Festival time.

Having led an enthusiastic group of Scilly walkers (not to be taken literally, in the funny sense of the word), I deliver the group to my collaborator for  this event; Euan Rodger, the owner and chef at Tanglewood Kitchen (at the back of the Post Office). I love working with Euan - he pre-prepares delicious dishes such as a rich, creamy sauce, and quickly cooks up fish while salivating foragers watch. I deliver a basket of wild ingredients that we've collected on the walk and Euan improvises (okay, we have a vague plan beforehand) and voila. On this autumnal gathering, the basket contains wild fennel seeds, alexander seeds and yarrow leaves to finish off his dish. Wooden forks are handed round and well all dive in. Not a morsel is left, and I think that says more than words.

 

Lapping waves, sweet smelling hedgerows, and glorious walks and forays in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly were the inspiration for writing my first book; Wild Food Foraging in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Which does what is says in the title.

Something worth sharing, I thought, something regional, specific and practical for these areas that I love and know with my forager's senses. The culmination of several years researching and teaching, several musing over possible book titles and angles, and a 9 month focused period from book proposal to sending the final product to the printers.

    

(Photographs from the Book; Bermuda Buttercup on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly)

It would be appropriate to mention that creating a book is a collaboration (you just need to look under 'Acknowledgements' to see some of whom I'm grateful to). Right from the beginning, the idea and content were honed by friends, colleagues, editors and of course my publisher; Alison Hodge - a joyful collaboration I might add.

From a young age my two loves of working with people and being creative were quite apparent. I have pursued both through my adult life; combining both as much as possible, as in this book. Armed with a camera, computer, books, kitchen equipment and a whole load of ingredients, both wild and bought - I aimed to capture the essence of 16 differing plants and 5 seaweeds, potential recipes, from facts to cooking tips. This was a project I loved.

 

(Dishes from the Book using Bermuda Buttercup ~ Oxalis pes caprae)

It was a busy period leading up to launching such a book, like having a party really - celebratory, though with lots of background work with invites, food, drink and a little media. I spent the morning of the launch (Thursday 7th May ~ Election Day actually), cycling out of town to forage ingredients for making wild pesto, and after lunching and voting, I set to in the kitchen, with my mother to make mountains of Three Cornered Leek and Nettle Pesto, and Sea Lettuce and Wild Carrot Seed Bread.

(Preparation for, and Three Cornered Leek and Nettle Pesto tasters at the Book Launch)

When 6pm arrived, we wandered up the main street of my home town; Penzance, to Edge of the World Bookshop, laden with bread and pesto, having changed out of both cycling clothes and kitchen aprons.

Guests started arriving, wine flowed (and ran out twice!), and tasters from the book enjoyed. There were shop keepers, b&b hosters, musicians, builders, walkers, web designers, health practitioners, council workers - indeed, Cornwall, food and nature lovers from all walks of life. The till was ringing, as books were perused, signed and there was a great hum of chatter throughout the shop.

As the evening progressed, the food was devoured - even the edible flower decorations were eaten - hurray! There's hope for our county eating up all the invasive weeds after- all.

 

By the end of the evening there were just 4 books left of the 70 that had been ordered by the bookshop earlier that week. Pretty good going for a thursday evening in a small town in Cornwall. Though of course the story does not end there... The book has now been on sale for over 2 months, and is slowly seeping into bookshops, delis, hotels and cafes on both the mainland and the islands.

Haven't got yours yet? Available locally in shops and food outlets (do feel free to suggest it if you can't find it locally yet), also available from this website, and on amazon.

Retails at just £5.95 and comes in a handy pocket size with 90 photographs. Spread the word - it's been described as a clear, practical, useful book with beautiful photographs to help with identification and tempting recipes.

Photos: Plants and Recipes - Rachel Lambert, Book Launch - Aspects Holidays

Unique Island Foraging

Really, like nowhere else.

Sudi Pigott, food journalist and author compared Gourmet Foraging and Dining on Scilly to an experience at Noma - Rene Redzepi's  Copenhagen restaurant, which, at least twice has won best restaurant in the world awards (S. Pellegrino 50). Noma specialises in using foraged and seasonal produce and has a world renown reputation.

According to Sudi, we were on a level with Noma (Daily Express, 2011).

Travelling to the Isles of Scilly always feels magical to me. I couldn't get much closer really (well not much) and still live on the mainland. The Scillonian ferry is 10 minutes walk away from my house, and standing in the right place I could watch the boat leave and return daily, in season.

Foraging can appeal to such a wide reach of people, from foodies to wildlife enthusiasts, and Scilly really is the perfect environment for it. A series of islands, low population numbers and a priority for wildlife including birds, plants and sea life, plus a distinct lack of cars and motor vehicles is ideal for foraging to flourish in the clean air and land. Indeed, foraging has happened a-plenty in Scilly in the past, piles of empty limpet shells on (the now uninhabited island of Samson) pays testament to that.

(The Foragers: Hell Bay Gourmet Foraging and Dining Break, Isles of Scilly)

And what about now? Like elsewhere in the UK, foraging has largely been forgotten, and the Coop (the largest food shop on Scilly) is perhaps an over-used substitute for the wild stuff. Local foods are still used though, when available. Though I can't help casting my eye across all those beautiful fresh ingredients, forgotten in the hedgerow, fields and coastline.

When I first approach Hell Bay with the idea of doing gourmet foraging events, I wanted the best. The best chef, environment and eating experience that would allow the wild ingredients to really be appreciated for what they are - special.  Special, abundant and worth rediscovering.

Our group of enthusiast guests, felt similarly (I hoped), and joined me for 3 days, 3 islands, 3 walks and 3, 5 course gourmet dinners - including the ingredients we'd foraged during the day. Travelling from various areas of the UK, foraging became our common ground, oh, and discussions about the hotel's enviable art collection.

We may not have looked like foragers, though looks aren't everything, and in a way, foraging was just the medium we used -  the chosen lense to appreciate the islands and the natural abundance they had to offer. Indeed, both people's adventurous spirits, and the wild plants themselves came up trumps, my favourite being when we focused on the seashore...

Foraging for seaweeds is tide dependent and on the islands it is also dependent on the times of the boats. On our final day of foraging we got the boat to St Martins island.  A sensitive juggling; this wasn't the first time we'd got dropped at the opposite end of the island to expected and planned for! A low tide is perfect for seaweed foraging, though not for mooring boats - oh well, we got to the island, were wellied up, well some of us, while others dared it with bare feet or trainers.  Thankfully the coastline of St Martins came up with the goods.

It amazes me that pottering around just one collection of rocks enabled us to forage for a wide range of seaweeds to accompany our dinner.

Sea Spaghetti before harvesting for supper

I had a 'shopping list' of 7 seaweeds, which we snipped off with scissors and took, happily back to the hotel kitchen. Idyll memories of aisles of sandy beaches, rock pools, paddling expeditions and a little clambering, looking under kelp forests and getting faces up close to the splish, sploshing water around us. Those who chose to, watched from a distance, enjoying the sun while the wellied ones paddled out to find the freshest finds. We laid out are proud findings on the rocks (who ever took photos - I'd love a copy!) before revising their names and bundling them into our baskets before heading off to lunch.

The evening's menu was always greeted with satisfying ooohs and aaahs - all the excitment you would expect from a special dinner party. I love that part - although we forage together, I like to keep the evening's menu a surprise. It's like revealing a new painting - we've worked creatively behind the scenes - myself helping design the menu and advise processes, then leaving the chefs to use their talents and skills to create 5 bespoke courses with a range of colours, textures and visual arrangements. Like art, food comes down to personal taste, though the variety and skill seemded to be enough to please everyone...

Hell Bay Hotel, Bryher, Isles of Scilly (our foraging base)

However.

Some dishes were a hit, while others had a mixed response that might be expected from more experimental cuisine. Personally, Sea Spaghetti (Spaghetti-like seaweed) with Grilled Turbot and pangretta with sea lettuce, followed by Rice Pudding with crystalised Alexander stems were hits with me. Though some disagreed! Other's loved the hogweed seed biscuits that accompanied Cornish cheeses - for me, I was completely satisfied already and had no room for anymore. All created within the style and quality you expect at Hell Bay.

Unique Scilly foraging it is.

I could list all the dishes of each evening, though just as a taster, here's the menu we enjoyed on our second evening after foraging on the Island of Tresco and an afternoon free to enjoy the Tresco Abbey Gardens.

  • Sorrel & Wall Oxalis Soup
  • Fennel Tempura Fillet of Hake, dressed White Crab Meat, steamed Rock Samphire,
  • Pan roasted fillet of Venison, Nettle Gnoochi, Frosted Orache, Three-cornered Leek puree, Chocolate & Yarrow Jus.
  • Gorse Flower Creme Brulee with Blackberry Leaf Sorbet
  • Cornish Cheeses with Hogweed & Alexander Seeded Biscuits

I offer bespoke foraging experiences on the Isles of Scilly, my availability is limited, and especially limited in high-season when the chefs are exceptionally busy. Luckily, foraging is best in early spring and autumn - do bear this inmind if you'd like to experience the wild side of these beautiful islands.

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