With its chalky cliffs, salty winds and shingle beaches, Sussex doesn’t appear the perfect place for foraging but a bounty of edible produce thrives along the coast if you know exactly where to look

This is the last place I expected to be foraging: an unremarkable, rather industrial footpath skirting Brighton Marina. There’s a dusty construction site to my left, an Asda supermarket to my right. Yet here I am with chef-forager Messa Ben from Brighton Cookery School, scouring high and low for edible plants.

I see nothing plate-worthy, but Messa, 52, spots plenty: rock samphire; a stringy member of the cabbage family; a plantain, not the banana-like fruit but an inconspicuous green. There’s even a large fig tree clinging to the rocks, though currently it’s bare.

Great British Life: Messa learnt how to forage in his native France. (c) Jo HuntMessa learnt how to forage in his native France. (c) Jo Hunt

This is my introduction to coastal foraging - the act of collecting wild produce that lives on or next to the shore. And although we don’t actually pick anything here, it’s an eye-opening lesson in just how many edible plants can grow in seemingly tough conditions.

Our day had begun in Messa’s London Road cookery school, discussing his childhood in Laroque-d'Olmes, a small village in the Pyrenees region of France, where he started foraging for food aged six or seven.

‘I’m from the generation when the internet wasn’t around,’ he tells me. ‘The only way of entertaining yourself as a child was to go out in the wild and to do certain activities with the help of Mother Nature. So I foraged.’

No handy YouTube tutorial, so his influencers were friends, family and ‘old men from the local village’.

He started by collecting mushrooms – ‘playing with something that could potentially kill you was exciting,’ he laughs – before expanding his coastal knowledge on family holidays.

Great British Life: Foraging is going back to our hunter-gatherer roots. (c) Jo HuntForaging is going back to our hunter-gatherer roots. (c) Jo Hunt

‘I used to spend time with my brother among the rockpools picking up seaweeds, molluscs and little crustaceans,’ he says. ‘We used to love doing that. Some kids were building sandcastles but we were too busy foraging.’

He honed those skills by studying food technology in France before moving to Brighton in 2010, opening his cookery school in Kemptown a year later and transferring to the current London Road site six years ago. His clients now range from multinational corporations on team-building excursions to survivalists prepping for an end-of-world situation.

Our goal today, however, is to scour the Sussex coast for two perennials: sea kale, a hardy cabbage with attractive frilly edges, and sea beets, a similarly robust green with a spinachy look and taste.

Probably not enough to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, but an intriguing introduction.

Great British Life: Shingle beaches are fertile ground for foragingShingle beaches are fertile ground for foraging

I learn from Messa that the southeast coast, despite the seemingly unwelcoming habitat of chalky cliffs, salty winds and shingle beaches, is a ‘rich larder’ where a bounty of edible produce thrives. Along with sea kale and sea beets, there are alexanders and samphires, plus molluscs, including mussels and oysters, and crustaceans. We also see plenty of other edible plants a little further back from the shore, including fennel and nettles.

There are laws on picking wild ingredients, of course, which are vital to know before getting out yourself – joining an expert like Messa certainly helps. For example, the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which you can find on the UK Government website, protects any picking of certain protected plants, and Messa warns me that the list changes regularly, depending on how the plant is faring. Similarly, if you’d like to pick on private property, you need the permission of the landowner.

Great British Life: There's a rich larder on the Sussex coast if you know where to lookThere's a rich larder on the Sussex coast if you know where to look

There is also an unwritten code to foraging.‘Be sensible. Be respectful. Diversify,’ Messa says, ‘it’s the same with fish. If people would be less obsessed with cod and haddock, there would be less pressure on those particular stocks.

‘Be bold. Try new things, a lot of people don’t. Share your knowledge, pass it on to your children, pass it on to your loved ones.’

With that in mind, we head towards Lancing. On the way, we stop at a roadside verge, where he looks for wild rocket (we don’t find any; proof that nothing is guaranteed when foraging, even for an expert). Instead, he finds citrusy sorrel and rips off a couple of leaves. He also shows me a hazelnut tree, two types of edible thistle and another member of the cabbage family.

We then jump back in the car and finish our drive to Lancing Beach. Upon arrival, Messa is instantly excited. I recognise tufts of sea kale on the shingle, but he spots sea beets on the adjacent verge. We kneel, tear off a few leaves and chuck them in our bag. He also spots a fennel plant as tall as we are; the whole thing is edible but he’s more interested in the seeds, which arrive at the end of summer.

Finally, we get onto the wind-whipped shore, picking leaves from multiple sea kale plants. We’re careful to only take a little from each, which allows the plant to thrive. We look for the newer leaves, which typically have a purple colour to their edges (the older, larger leaves are tougher and don’t taste as good).

Great British Life: Kale grows in abundance on the coastKale grows in abundance on the coast

Our collection ends with a half-full bag, the sea kale so abundant that it’s only a few strides between each plant. I return home, inspired and enthused to get in the kitchen and to put my coastal foraging to the taste test.

I take the sorrel and roughly chop it, before throwing it into a blender with butter, salt and pepper. It’s then popped in the fridge for later.

With the sea kale and sea beets, I follow Messa’s commands. First, I remove the midribs (the supporting central vein) in each sea kale leaf, which he tells me are a little bitter. Then I throw the sea kale in a saucepan with a little butter, a few drops of vinegar, some water, salt and pepper. Most importantly, I open the windows and back door – the sea kale can have a strong scent when it’s cooked.

After leaving it in the saucepan for three or four minutes, I add the less-tough sea beets.

Messa had advised pairing that with a nice sea bass or crustaceans but as I’m sharing with my non-fish-eating partner, we have a vegan kiev instead. On the side, we have new potatoes, roasted and then lathered in the sorrel butter.

Great British Life: Kale is one of nature's finest ingredients - and it's freeKale is one of nature's finest ingredients - and it's free

The result? The sea kale has a powerful cabbage-y tang, slightly bitter but far more exciting than shop-bought. The sea beets are spinachy, as promised, more subtle and more beginner friendly than the sea kale.

Beyond that, however, there’s an undeniable sense of excitement in serving food you’ve picked yourself; perhaps it’s something innate, a relic of our days as hunter-gathers when, as Messa had pointed out earlier, we would regularly live by the coast thanks to the relative ease in collecting food there.

As I eat, I think back to something else Messa told me earlier. ‘The French tend to have a very different approach when it comes to foraging. We do forage a lot, whether it’s picking up snails or a green energy-booster around springtime. I think that’s a knowledge that has been forgotten in this country.

‘Picking up things in the wild was relatively common back in the day and something happened, I don’t know what.’

I can’t help but think it’s a shame. My introduction to coastal foraging was delightful, easy exercise and ultimately ended with a delicious meal. And the biggest bonus? I’m one step closer to surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. And surely that has to be a good thing.

Brighton Cookery School runs private foraging events. Visit www.brightoncookeryschool.com for more information.

Steamed Sussex sea kale and white sprouting broccoli with crab, smoked roe and seaweed

450g of sea kale

450g of white sprouting broccoli

300ml of shellfish stock, ideally crab stock

150g of cultured butter

1 lemon

1 tbsp of chervil, chopped

200g of white crab meat

120g of taramasalata, best quality

1 tsp nori powder, which can be made by blitzing sheets of nori in a blender

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

Set up a large steamer pan half-filled with water and bring to the boil. Trim the sea kale into 10cm lengths, ensuring the head remains intact, then trim the broccoli stalks and peel the stems lightly. Wash both separately in iced water until clean and crisp, then drain and sprinkle with sea salt. Leave to sit for 30 seconds

Steam both the kale and broccoli for 5-7 minutes, until just tender, then cover and leave to cool naturally.

While the kale and broccoli cools, prepare the sauce (this can be done in advance and reheated if desired). Place a medium-sized pan over a medium heat, then add the crab (or shellfish), stock and butter. Bring to a simmer then allow to reduce by a third.

Once reduced and thickened, remove the sauce from the heat and finely zest the lemon into it, along with a squeeze of lemon juice, the chervil and the crab meat.

To serve, ensure your four serving bowls are warmed until hot to the touch. Reheat the sauce if needed, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Arrange the cooled sea kale and broccoli in the bowls, then spoon the sauce over the top, ensuring they’re evenly covered. Finish with a spoonful of taramasalata and a sprinkle of nori powder.