Severn steps to foraging heaven: a guided tour of the estuary’s edible plants | Wales holidays
There’s something alluring, even slightly mystifying, about estuaries. The end of a river’s journey, it’s a collision of habitats where freshwater meets saltwater, and wooded riverbanks suddenly give way to cliffs, rocky shores, then mudflats, ridged and grooved like the surface of a brain. Wind whips up in all directions, stinging your cheeks with salt.
“When I’ve been down on the estuary for a few hours, I always feel invigorated, like I’ve had a good lungful of fresh air,” says Chloé Newcomb-Hodgetts, foraging guide and founder of Gourmet Gatherings, who offers private and group foraging tours. “It definitely helps me sleep better.”
Chloé has come to meet me at Beachley, a peninsula village on the banks of the Severn, and under the original Severn Bridge, on the England-Wales border. This particular foraging trip focuses on edible plants you can find along the estuary, a habitat often overlooked by those heading to the woods for nettles and wild garlic in spring.
“I counted 45 edibles here last week,” Chloé says, reaching into her basket to hand me a blade of sea arrowgrass she’d picked on the shore earlier It’s also known as coriander grass for its similarity in flavour. Indeed it does taste like coriander, but better: salty, buttery and with a succulent bite. “You wouldn’t expect such exotic flavours under a flyover, would you?” she laughs, then assures me the bridge is too high up for any traffic contaminants to settle on the shore – the wind blows it out to sea.
I ask her why the estuary is so bountiful for wild food. “We get so many nutrients and minerals washing in with the tide, enriching the claggy soil. We also get this lovely morning sun and warm sea air bringing everything into fruition earlier, so the plants can thrive.”
As we begin our search for edibles in a meadow by the shore, I soon learn that Chloé is a passionate cook as well as a forager. She points out larch roses, which she pickles into substitute capers, and maritime pine pollen she has used to coat bonbons. She breaks open the stem of an Alexander plant (first brought over by the Romans and now prevalent along the Welsh coast) for me to smell. It has the powerful aroma of pink grapefruit.
“Cut the stem into pieces and put them in a bottle of bog-standard supermarket gin, along with some maritime pine needles,” she says. “After four days, all those citrussy flavours will impart and you’ll have a delicious gin flavoured with wild botanicals.”
After picking some mugwort (historically placed under pillows to induce pleasant dreams, Chloé tells me) and mallow leaves (a great substitute for stuffing instead of vine leaves) we head down to the beach, where she maps outs the foraging zones for me with sweeps of her hand. She explains that on the top shore above the tide line, we get plants that “like a bit of salt but aren’t keen on getting their feet wet” – sea spinach, wild cabbage and orache. Spear-leaved orache is one of her favourite estuary edibles: “It’s like tenderstem broccoli and spinach combined.”
Below the tideline are the succulent plants that thrive on the water’s high mineral content, such as scurvy-grass (tastes like Colman’s mustard), sea plantain (goes well with fish) and sea asters, a member of the daisy family. I nibble on an aster leaf and get an instant hit of pickled gherkin.
“The leaves elongate as they grow,” Chloé says. “So you can use them to wrap fish when you’re steaming it, and it will infuse all that flavour.”
Chloé is keen to show me another foraging spot further along the estuary at Sudbrook, which is only a short drive downstream. There, beyond the rocks, an expanse of coastal flats spreads out before us, spanned by the newer Prince of Wales (M4) Bridge. As my eyes adjust to the bright light during a break in the clouds, it becomes clear we’ve entered nature’s kitchen garden. Big clumps of sea spinach and wild cabbage are scattered as far as the eye can see. The cabbage plants are picture perfect, seemingly untouched by insects, buds sprouting from the top like broccolinis.
Chloé busies herself picking cabbage leaves to make kimchi later, while I gather spinach for my dinner, amazed we’re the only ones down here helping ourselves to free food. Chloé explains that it’s not so much the case in the woods, where she encounters lots of people with their foraging baskets looking for wild garlic and fungi, particularly since the start of the pandemic.
“Everyone became an amateur forager during lockdown,” she says. “People started walking more, and becoming more curious about what was around them. Once you’ve got a taste for foraging, you’ve got the bug. But people need to do it responsibly, not blitz areas so there’s nothing left for wildlife, or to regrow next year.”
Along the cliffs on our way back to the car, we’re rewarded with a sea herb prized in the fine-dining world. Tufts of rock samphire poke from a rocky crevice – the fronds packed with an intensely carroty, almost aniseedy flavour. The flavour is so strong, in fact, that chefs typically use only a single frond to garnish a fillet of fish.
From buttery and citrusy to fishy and aniseedy, the variety of flavours we’ve encountered during our couple of hours on the estuary has been astounding. As we say our goodbyes, I find myself infected by Chloé’s fervour for “tossing arrowgrass in frying butter” and rolling toffee in pine pollen, and hope to carry that enthusiasm home with me, for tonight’s dinner at least.
Gourmet Gatherings hosts estuary, woodland and hedgerow foraging walks; the estuary trip costs £45 per adult. When estuary foraging independently, be aware of local tide times and take a guidebook to identify plants.
Five more foraging experiences
Galloway Wild Foods, Dumfries & Galloway
Hosts coastal and estuary forays around south-west Scotland, gathering spring greens, seaweed, shellfish and herbs. Its website is also a handy resource for identifying edibles for independent foragers.
The Family Foraging Kitchen, Cornwall
A woodland and estuary walk gathering wild food along the Tamar, ending with a cooking and tasting session with your foraged finds.
Foraging with Rachel Lambert, Cornwall
Rachel hosts private forays on the Helford and other estuaries in Cornwall, gathering hedgerow and coastal edibles. Expect to find gorse flowers, seaweed, alexanders and molluscs.
Urban Forage, East Sussex
A stroll along the River Cuckmere’s marshes to the estuary beneath Seven Sisters cliffs, identifying sea vegetables, seaweed and herbs.
Totally Wild, nationwide
Hosts an array of foraging courses across the country, including coastal and estuary walks gathering samphire, arrowgrass and a seaweed that reputedly tastes like beef jerky. Lunch also provided using the foraged ingredients.