THE INTERTIDAL REALMS ARE UNDER THREAT....
We’d talked a lot about the mysterious world of the foreshore at BohemainMojo so Stephanie and I decided we’d take a look at the way mankind explores this enigmatic expanse of tidal marsh, exposed strata, rock pools, sand levels and seaweed beds.
For thousands of years mankind has ventured onto this hazardous, intertidal zone in search of food to forage. We know that because of the evidence left by hunter gatherers. Not least of which are the huge middens of limpet shells which they’d collected to cook on heated, flat stones.
It wasn’t just limpets. They collected a wonderful array of other shellfish too - oysters, mussels, cockles, clams, whelks, winkles, crabs and razor shells. And they fished. They used hand lines, fish spears, nets, baskets and fish traps some of which were huge arrow shaped rock assemblages. They dug for sea worms to use as bait.
Those endlessly inventive people also discovered seaweed had huge health benefits and ventured onto this hostile, liminal region to harvest it. And they learnt the foreshore was a place where they could conjure one of the basics of life using the energy of the sun to magically evaporate sea salt.
Little wonder seasonal camps on the sea shore were a vital part of a hunter gatherer group’s yearly cycle. When agriculture came along, people began to settle the seashore permanently and over centuries the farming model known as crofting developed.
People would fish and grow and forage at the ocean’s edge. They grazed cattle, sheep and ponies on the marshes. They still do. That’s particularly true of the Celtic communities of the Atlantic seaboard of Europe. From Brittany, through Cornwall to Wales, Western Ireland and Scotland you can still find that mixed lifestyle being practiced.
People forage shellfish and collect seaweed to eat and they still risk their lives in small boats to set lobster pots, haul crabs and fish for dabs, bass, sewin and mackerel. Strictly regulated by tide and weather it is the ultimate in sustainable food gathering and growing.
So Mojo headed to Wales to look for traces of this rich lifestyle. Our first stop was Swansea Market where families from the fantastic North Gower coast sell their produce. They come from villages where a huge estuary has formed the salt marshes of Llanrhidian and the sand flats that lie beyond.
There, at low tide, miles of natural cockle beds are exposed and people have ventured out onto this dangerous place to harvest these fantastic shellfish since time immemorial. In recent centuries it was the women from the villages of Penclawdd and Crofty who went onto the flats to comb the cockles out of the sand. They use hand rakes then riddle them to let the smallest escape to continue growing.
Not so long ago they used to ride out onto the endless horizons of the sand on donkeys or in pony carts. They would work for hours but always with one eye on the approaching tide. Hard work. Fresh sea air.
When I was a boy cockles from Penclawdd were a regular treat and I remember the middens of cockle shells heaped in the centre of the village. A hunter gatherer tradition that lived on.
My mother would collect cockles from neighbouring beaches too. She kept them alive in an old bath tub filled with sea water. A handful of oats was thrown into the tub so the cockles would graze on them and purge themselves of sand. They didn’t know it but the cockles were prepping themselves to be eaten ready stuffed!
Back to Penclawdd. As well as the cockle harvest the village is still the home of laverbread production. Laverbread, bara lawr in the Welsh language, is a seaweed delicacy and is usually cooked with bacon and eggs for breakfast. But there are various other recipes and it can be eaten as a crust over lamb (more about lamb later). It’s an acquired taste but I find it absolutely delicious and the health benefits are enormous.
It is prepared by drying the laver seaweed which is then boiled and shredded in big vats and offered for sale either plain or rolled with oatmeal. Stephanie and I drove to the city of Swansea where we found a hub of laverbread and cockle stores at the center of Swansea Market’s trading floor.
Tania Swistun runs her mother’s stall and her cousin owns one of the other stalls too. Tanya explained how the cockles are harvested at low tide out on the huge sandy expanse of the Burry Estuary near Penclawdd.
“My family has been harvesting cockles for generations. It used to be the women who went out on donkey carts to get them but now the men go out in Land Rovers instead. I used to do it when I was a teenager just so I could get a suntan out on the flats. But there was always a wind out there so you had to work to keep warm.
“These days some of the local farmers make a lot of money out of the salt marsh lamb. They keep the sheep on Llanrhidian Marshes where they graze all the sea herbs and samphire which give them a fantastic flavor. Lamb from Penclawdd gets top prices and all the top chefs are after it for their menus because of its unique taste.
“Laver bread is still produced at Crofty in big boilers. We use a type of seaweed called laver but there’s not so much of it left these days on the Gower so we import a lot from Scotland. It’s very popular in Wales and between the cockles and the bara lawr there’s still a living to be made from the tradition.”
Ah! Memories of my Welsh childhood and my grandmother’s fusion of the two ingredients in her lamb and cockle pie came flooding back. She would layer the samphire-fed lamb pieces with cockles between and top it with a lamb broth. Topped with a potato flour crust it was baked to salivating perfection.
We took our laver bread with us further west to our friends Jan Mathias and Joanne Evans at the Monk Haven bed and breakfast near Dale in Pembrokeshire. They call it a bed and breakfast but the name doesn’t do the justice.
Jan cooked the bara lawr for our breakfast the next morning and, to be honest, Dr. Shelburne didn’t look to impressed as she tasted it though she did stop short of grimacing. No matter. I ate most of hers too and enjoyed it immensely,
In the days to come Stephanie and I will be writing about other expeditions in search of samphire and the tiny shellfish called winkles. But remember if you forage on the foreshore you have to be aware of the dangers and pay great respect to the tide tables.
It is an enigmatic reach where the tide rules half the day and the sun the rest. The moon of course dictates everything that happens as it ordains the time and height of the tides. We’ve learnt it’s a place for hardy, patient people with a special understanding of its unique character.
And because it is so on the edge and so unforgiving the foreshore is, by its very nature, a sustainable habitat. At least it is when left to nature and in the wardenship of those people who are in tune with time and tide.
Sadly, that may not be the case for much longer on another Celtic seaboard; the West Coast of Ireland. There traditional rights to collect from the foreshore are threatened by big business. In a quite breathtaking piece of hypocrisy the government agency charged with protecting the Irish language and culture has actually sold the seaweed harvesting rights, held by 400 cottagers, to a Canadian corporation.
Communities which have harvested seaweed for thousands of years may find their rights restricted or even denied to satisfy the commercial interests of the Canadian multi-national. In fact one harvester has already been issued with an enforcement order under the Foreshore Act ordering him to stop.
In an old cottage industry seaweed like dulse is collected for traditional and sort after food while bladderwrack is sold for pharmaceutical and cosmetic processing. The work is weather dependant and hard.
And it’s by no means clear that the prohibitions just cover seaweed collection. Shellfish like cockles and winkles may also be covered. Against this background there is now a growing revolt against this sale and fears there might be protests on the once tranquil beaches of Ireland.
Little wonder when you learn the government agency involved quietly bought up more and more foreshore rights before selling to the Canadians in what seems to have been a coordinated strategy to deny communities their rights.
The people of Ireland are wondering why there was absolutely no consultation and no built in protection for age old tradition. If there had to be a sale, they ask, why wasn’t there a transparent open tender; usual with government contracts. The people of Ireland would also like to know why the price of the sale is being kept secret and why the government’s top seaweed scientist declares the sale is a great idea in the face of community need.
What’s been going on you may well ask and BohemianMojo is planning a trip to Ireland to support the protests and report on what we consider to be the shameless theft of a sustainable culture.