The epithet "wild" is found sprinkled across many a restaurant menu. Its use has come to be a synonym for earthiness. However, relatively few of us would actually consider finding food from nature's larder. The coast is a great training ground in autumn and provides an epic backdrop that beats any supermarket.
Budding foragers should start with something that is easily identified and cannot be confused with anything else. Mussels are a good place to start. Look for them on beaches that are well away from human habitation and have decent-sized outcrops of rock on the lower shore, submerged at high tide but fully exposed when the sea is out.
Mussels sieve through gallons of whatever water surrounds them, so harvest them from areas that are regularly and roughly washed by strong, clean tides. A good place to look for the right spot is the Environment Agencies website (environment-agency.gov.uk). Head for bathing areas certified to a "high" standard of cleanliness and always rinse your mussels in two changes of clean, salted water before cooking.
Aim to arrive just before high tide and start by walking down towards the water, looking for the dark mass covering the rocks. Follow the sea as it retreats before working your way along and back inshore, keeping the encroaching waves a good distance behind you. Lift up seaweed and scour sea-facing rocks for the telltale wedge-shaped shell with identical hinged halves. If the mussel is healthy, these should be closed tightly.
Gather the shiny, unbroken and firmly closed specimens that are neither the biggest nor the smallest, but somewhere in between. Juveniles may not have developed a full flavour, while the bigger, older mussels can be too chewy; those around 40-55mm long are best. Be sparing in your gathering and move a step or two after picking each one to ensure the colony is unaffected. Collect around half a kilo per person; 15 to 20 mussels each is plenty.
The light drizzle did not spoil our own foraging experience. The rain mixed in the breeze with sea spray, a cooling atomizer to greet us after our journey. Every service station we had passed on a trip through Kent, the "Garden of England" had been the antithesis of foraging, stocked with produce from around the globe, packaged and sold alongside diesel and petrol.
A few steps towards the sea and we felt the change; we were through the garden, out the back gate and down the path. With the sun brightening to the west, we followed it along the coast road and pulled the car over at any stretch of uninhabited rock or beach to search. Advancing down the shore in one spot we came across the first outposts of a colony, raked by sunlight. Commandeering the rock faces, they were wedged in their thousands on a curving trajectory up and down the shore, as if lava had flowed down from the sandstone cliffs and stuck to the stone. We twisted the best specimens free as gulls shrieked above.
There is a simple delight in eating mussels and few would argue they are best when enjoyed Marinière style, steamed in butter and white wine with shallots and parsley. Use the empty shells as pincers to pull out the meat – this is perfect finger food. Eating them, you enter a ritual of sharing that dates back to our earliest ancestors, seen in prehistoric shellfish middens found around our coast. Now, just as then, eating shellfish after a day at the beach is a form of bonding as well as sustenance; we bond with each other and with the coast itself.
Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley's book describing their journeys around Britain will be published in spring 2012 by Hodder. For more information, follow them on their blog at getbackuk.com
Find your own mussel beach
Bolt Head, Soar, South Devon
A few miles south of Salcombe, you come upon spectacular white sands and rocky outcrops fringed by a turquoise sea. Mussels grow in abundance, but are best picked from the lowest rocks at low tide.
Cable Bay, Knoydart, Scotland
Western Scotland provides some of the meatiest and flavoursome morsels you can hope to find in the UK. The chill of the sea and scarcity of humans on this beach, which lies a few miles from Inverie, ensures they are clean enough to cook hinge-down in the embers of a driftwood fire.
Reighton Beach, Filey, North Yorkshire
Walk along the beach at any direction and look out for the rocky inter-tidal zone at low tide for masses of blue-black mussels in this atmospheric landscape.
Trebarwith Strand, Cornwall
Situated close to Tintagel, a sweep of beautiful shore half a mile in width in exposed at low tide. Head to the water to find outcrops of stone covered with mussels, but always keep a keen eye out for the returning sea.