Guest blog shared with permission from Chris Pople. Cheese and Biscuits Blogspot
I can’t imagine any holiday or short break of any kind that doesn’t in some way revolve around food, but this trip to Pembrokeshire was a little unusual. Instead of hanging the weekend around a Top 50 Gastropub or high-profile foodie favourite, our signature Saturday night meal would be something of an unknown quantity, at a boutique hotel in the pretty coastal town of Newport, reviewed well for its rooms and location but with very little to go on when it came to the food. My interest had been piqued by the existence of a kitchen garden, various mentions of foraging on the menu and the fact they ran their own smokehouse, but more than that, I was in the dark. To be honest, it could have gone either way.
So as insurance against a potentially disappointing dinner, we had organised what would surely be the runaway highlight of this weekend, and indeed would turn out to be most probably the highlight of the rest of the year – an afternoon seafood foraging with YouTube star Craig Evans. For those of you who don’t know, Craig has built up a dedicated following for his short videos of himself hauling a bewildering variety of shellfish and crustacea out of the Pembrokeshire coastal sands. The video in particular that got me hooked involved Craig, up to his neck in murky tidal water, fishing around with his bare hands in a terrifying dark crevasse, before triumphantly swinging around and belting the camera with a giant blue lobster. Free lobster! It’s the foodie’s dream.
Off we went, then, to a secret location near Carmarthen Bay (Craig, quite understandably, guards his favourite spots quite closely) to meet the man himself, another dedicated foraging fan, and his handsome dog Llew, a golden retriever with a gentle personality and a pull on the leash like a grizzly bear. First stop, to make the most of the extreme low tide, was an area of mussel beds beneath a promontory, where a good haul of plump shellfish were frantically wrestled from the rocks and bagged up in the 15 or so minutes we had before the tide started to creep back in.
Next, a walk along the beach to raid the cockle beds, a much more leisurely and almost therapeutic pursuit. You drag your fingers through the sand a few inches from the surface, and before long begin to bump up against the cockles, sturdy little things about an inch across. With a trained eye (ie. Craig’s) you can dig up a couple of dozen every minute, although even I managed enough to dress a bowl of vongole. In the same fertile area of the bay, though, lurk some real monsters – soft-shelled clams, the size of your fist, which live about a foot under the surface. Grabbing one of these guys is a case of looking for a tell-tale circular depression in the sand and scooping away the top layer. If you are rewarded with a squirt of water (as the clam’s siphon is retracted), then this spot is occupied. Then it’s just a case of digging, and digging, and digging until you reach far enough down to carefully (their shells are fragile, and a broken shell means an inedible clam) bring the thing to the surface.
Before long we had more than enough to feed our party, so we headed to the back of the bay, where fresh running water made the cleaning of the haul easier, and lit the “Solva Stove” (Swedish candle), a clever bit of engineering which heats up a pan of fresh seafood just long enough to cook it before collapsing sustainably and environmentally into carbon. And of course, it all tasted wonderful. With no seasoning other than the animals themselves, we each enjoyed a bowl of richly-flavoured broth, studded with sweet cockles, miniature shrimp (that Craig had found the same morning), wild garlic (ditto) fleshy mussels and, on the side, carefully filleted portions of soft-shelled clam, meaty like squid. We ate our bowls of seafood, surely the freshest and most satisfyingly procured lunch it’s possible to imagine, sat on the rocks in the bright Pembrokeshire sunshine. Then, when the final bits of clam had been handed out, we cleared up, headed back up the cliffs and left hardly a trace we’d ever been there at all.
Almost as soon as it was over I wanted to head back down to the beach and start the hunt for more clams, but who knows if my foraging skills will stay with me. Maybe it’s like when you help with cooking a meal with a very talented cook friend, and by the end of it start to think you’ve got the hang of it, but the next time you attempt anything on your own it’s a disaster. Or maybe that’s just me. But even if the skills don’t stick, and I never haul another half-kilo clam out of the ground with my bare hands again in my life, what an experience, what a day and what an incredible education on the bounty of our shores. I’ll never look at our coast in the same way again – what once were barren stretches of sand and inhospitable rocks, I’ll now see for what they really are.
Bit silly to score a foraging course the same way I would a restaurant, but look, I’ve gone and done it anyway. Craig refused payment for the foraging afternoon even though we were more than willing to pay, so I suppose this is a kind of invite. So I mention it just for full transparency. Book your own course, year round on his website (he has customers from all over the world). Oh, and finally, to read a much better and more thorough interview with Craig get yourself a copy of Pit Magazine issue 6. A little plug for my mate’s mag, there. For the meal at Llys Meddyg, watch this space…