For­ag­ing in Scot­land’s Bay of Plenty

There’s a bit of the hunter-gath­erer in most of us and Scot­land’s west coast of­fers es­pe­cially rich pick­ings

The Field - - Contents - words and pic­tures BY adrian dan­gar

Adrian Dan­gar goes hunter-gath­er­ing

Ire­mem­ber the first time I vis­ited the Bay of Plenty on the west coast of Scot­land as if it were yes­ter­day and the fizz of bait­fish rup­tur­ing the sea swell be­neath a hot blue sky. Shoals of mack­erel lurked off­shore and ev­ery few min­utes they charged into the clearer shal­lows to

at­tack the smaller fish with such fe­roc­ity that the ebbing tide left be­hind quiv­er­ing sil­ver heaps on the damp sea­weed. I left a few hours later lug­ging a ruck­sack full of mack­erel and buck­ets of white­bait to feast on for months to come. That dis­cov­ery was made nearly a decade ago but the Bay of Plenty has re­warded the long walk out to her shores ev­ery sum­mer since, and of­fered up mem­o­rable sight­ings of sea ea­gles, roe deer and seals for the delec­ta­tion of my fam­ily. I am not the only hunter-gath­erer to visit the west coast of Scot­land for her rich pick­ings but I have yet to meet an­other soul at my favourite and most se­cret of lo­ca­tions.

Per­haps that is be­cause ev­ery­one has their own spe­cial place to for­age fruits of the sea and shore. The Ty­acke fam­ily visit

a re­mote cot­tage on the rugged west coast a lit­tle far­ther south for hunter-gath­er­ing hol­i­days, where lan­goustines are the ul­ti­mate prize. Also known as prawns, these vivid or­ange crus­taceans thrive in deep sea lochs with firm sandy bot­toms and are caught in small creels with side en­trance fun­nels. “On a good day our five pots can yield a dozen prawns,” Richard Ty­acke re­veals. “It is hard work pulling them up through 25 me­tres of wa­ter, and you need a boat to reach the mid­dle of the loch, but they are eas­ier to catch than lob­sters and even bet­ter eat­ing.”

The Ty­ackes’ pots are baited with mack­erel and some­times catch dog­fish and squat lob­sters. “Dog­fish aren’t pop­u­lar be­cause they have to be skinned be­fore eat­ing,” Ty­acke ex­plains, “but they make de­li­cious fish and chips when fried in bat­ter.” Others boil dog­fish to loosen their sand­pa­per-like skin be­fore peel­ing it off but, ac­cord­ing to Ty­acke, that ren­ders the meat mushy and taste­less.

One April the Ty­ackes took me up the sea loch to visit a spec­tac­u­larly re­mote and beau­ti­ful bay where we found a beach bub­bling with thou­sands of squirt­ing ra­zor clams that had been ex­posed by a low spring tide. These de­li­cious bi­valves are sel­dom as eas­ily har­vested as they were that morn­ing and we dug up sev­eral to bar­be­cue in their shells; cooked this way, the sweet and suc­cu­lent meat tastes like fresh cala­mari, only bet­ter. Ra­zor clams are of­ten caught by pour­ing salt into the small, key-shaped im­prints that be­tray their presence be­neath the sand, and grab­bing the long, thin shells the in­stant they pop up from their sanc­tu­ar­ies. Beaches lit­tered with bro­ken ra­zor­clam shells are a sure in­di­ca­tion that a colony is liv­ing close by; how­ever, you may not al­ways find them without the help of ex­treme low tides.

grab­bing crab

We also found an ed­i­ble brown crab that had bur­rowed so deeply into the sand that just a cou­ple of square inches of cara­pace showed like a sub­merged red brick. Ty­acke uses a glass-bot­tomed tub to spot brown crabs here in sum­mer and a hooked stick to prise the most stub­born from well-dug-in lairs. The crab in­vari­ably seals his own fate by grab­bing hold of the stick with a strong front claw and re­fus­ing to let go un­til it’s too late. Crabs can also be found in deep rock pools at

We found a beach burst­ing with thou­sands of squirt­ing ra­zor clams

low tide, al­though ex­tract­ing them can prove chal­leng­ing – it’s eas­ier to catch them in lob­ster pots baited with fish or dog meat, which can be thrown off rocky head­lands when the tide is out. Be­ware flimsy mesh traps ad­ver­tised as suit­able for crabs and lob­sters; they are fine for prawns, shrimps and tiny crabs but any­thing de­cent will tear its way out in no time, as I have found out to my cost. Pulling in an empty trap to find a ragged hole where the catch of the week has made good his es­cape is dis­ap­point­ing; bet­ter to spend 10 times more on a proper, es­cape-proof creel.

The dif­fer­ent tex­tures and taste of brown and white crab meat pro­vide more va­ri­ety than the uni­formly de­li­cious lob­ster, but they are in­fin­itely pick­ier to pre­pare. The novice will find clear in­struc­tion on how to dress a crab on the in­ter­net, and the task is much eas­ier with the help of a spe­cially de­signed crab fork to prise out meat from the most in­ac­ces­si­ble crevices of the body sec­tion and spindly legs. By con­trast, there is noth­ing sim­pler to pre­pare than a lob­ster for a quick and de­li­cious feast; hav­ing killed the crus­tacean by push­ing a sharp knife through the head sim­ply wrap it in tin­foil, add a knob of but­ter to­gether with a pinch of salt and steam for 10 min­utes on the bar­be­cue.

Iain Pater­son works on the MOD ranges on Cape Wrath in the far north-west of Scot­land and en­joys run­ning a few lob­ster pots in his spare time. I joined him last Septem­ber to learn the tricks of his trade, which in­clude us­ing an echo sounder to iden­tify es­pe­cially rocky ar­eas of seabed where lob­sters thrive. Pater­son knocked off the en­gine within min­utes of leav­ing har­bour and let down lines of feath­ers to catch mack­erel, co­ley and pol­lock for bait, al­though he lobbed out the largest fish for the ben­e­fit of two mag­nif­i­cent sea ea­gles watching our progress from rocky promon­to­ries on­shore. We kept most of the mack­erel to eat our­selves, for they are de­li­cious bar­be­cued, fried, smoked or made into pâté with a dash of hot horse­rad­ish sauce.

With suf­fi­cient bait soon landed, we fol­lowed the rough coast­line south for a mile or more to haul up pots Pater­son had baited two days ear­lier. The first held an an­gry con­ger eel and some dark-green vel­vet swim­ming crabs that were dis­carded, al­though the lat­ter’s meat is con­sid­ered a del­i­cacy in Spain and they can also be made into a tasty bisque. The next creel con­tained two large and men­ac­ing brown crabs shuf­fling into the cor­ners of the trap that were des­tined for sup­per, but spe­cial care was needed to re­move them without be­ing grabbed by the strong, black-tipped claws; the trick is to pick the crab up from be­hind where the pin­cers can­not reach. “No mat­ter how many creels I’ve set in my life, I am as ex­cited pulling up my last pot as I was my first,” en­thused Pater­son as he heaved an­other one into the boat, which held a beau­ti­ful, blue-black crus­tacean gleam­ing like Whitby Jet. The lob­ster was checked for size against a stiff board car­ried in the fish­ing box; any with a cara­pace mea­sur­ing less than 87mm long must be re­turned to the wa­ter; crab shells

must be at least 140mm long and 65mm wide. In Scot­tish wa­ters, un­li­censed fish­ing boats are also re­stricted to a daily limit of five crabs and a sin­gle lob­ster, and berried fe­males car­ry­ing eggs be­neath the tail should al­ways be re­leased, along with any crabs that have new, gleam­ing soft shells.

shore things

Lob­sters and lan­goustines are rare treats for the hunter-gath­erer but much can be for­aged without a boat. Mus­sels must rep­re­sent the most re­ward for the least ef­fort, for they are eas­ily gath­ered from colonies ex­posed at low tide. Mus­sels farmed on long ropes are ridicu­lously cheap but never taste quite as good as those plucked straight off the rocks, and the fact that all wild Scot­tish mus­sels tech­ni­cally be­long to the Crown adds a fris­son of ex­cite­ment to their col­lec­tion. My favourite beds are a good 40 min­utes’ walk from the near­est road, which is prob­a­bly

why the sil­very black shells of the largest mol­luscs con­tain nearly as much meat as a roast snipe. They live be­side a clean es­tu­ary of con­stantly run­ning salt­wa­ter, which I have al­ways taken to ex­empt the colony from the dan­ger­ous al­gae blooms of high sum­mer that can put mus­sels tem­po­rar­ily off the menu.

On the way back from col­lect­ing mus­sels last sum­mer I bumped into an el­derly crofter wear­ing a tar­tan kilt, knee-length socks and un­laced boots be­neath an old tweed cap. Alis­tair Suther­land was scour­ing the fore­shore for peri­win­kles – the blacker the bet­ter, he said – and col­lect­ing the tiny mol­luscs with a tool nor­mally used for pick­ing up lit­ter, hav­ing ex­posed them by us­ing a walk­ing stick to brush aside mounds of sea­weed. Win­kles have never quite shaken off their as­so­ci­a­tion with poverty and the East End of Lon­don but Suther­land’s buck­et­ful of shiny black jew­els in­spired me to try some

my­self, which were de­li­cious when boiled and prized from their shells with the aid of a nee­dle.

I once came across a beau­ti­ful scal­lop on the floor of a rock pool the size of a swim­ming pool. These de­li­cious, fan-shaped mol­luscs are only found on per­ma­nently sub­merged seabeds, mak­ing them easy pick­ings for the scuba diver who knows where to look but a lung-bust­ing, ear-split­ting free dive for ev­ery­one else. Put on a wet­suit and seek them out with gog­gles, snorkel and fins on hot sum­mer af­ter­noons wher­ever cur­rents mix in clear wa­ter but the sea bed is within reach of your strong­est dive. Carry a spear gun and look out for dabs, too – per­fectly cam­ou­flaged flat fish that lie mo­tion­less on sandy bot­toms and are de­li­cious pan fried.

I al­ways carry a spin­ning rod and Toby lure when for­ag­ing the shore­line in sum­mer, for schools of sui­ci­dal, greedy mack­erel can ap­pear out of nowhere as they did on my first visit to the Bay of Plenty. Watch the sur­face for bait­fish and look out for seag­ulls, be­cause even the small­est gath­er­ing of gulls of­ten be­trays the presence of bait­fish that mack­erel pur­sue in a David At­ten­bor­ough­style feed­ing frenzy. Given warm, set­tled con­di­tions these in­ter­mit­tent at­tacks can last for days on end, which is when a cast­ing net thrown a yard or two off­shore can some­times yield bas­kets of scrump­tious white­bait. As Ty­acke is fond of say­ing, “the whole point of hunter-gath­er­ing is that you are up there liv­ing like a king on food you couldn’t af­ford in a Lon­don restau­rant”. Not only free but a lot fresher, too.

Carry a spear gun and look out for dabs, de­li­cious pan fried

Left: the writer land­ing an im­pres­sive lob­ster Above: for­ag­ing for mus­sels at low tide be­neath the cov­er­ing of sea wrack. Inset: de­li­cious win­kles – the blacker the shell the bet­ter

Above: setting a lob­ster pot – buy good-qual­ity creels if you want to keep your catch. Inset: you can dine for free on seafood that would cost a for­tune in a restau­rant. Be­low: cooked and ready for the ta­ble

Don wet­suit, gog­gles and snorkel and dive for dab, per­fectly cam­ou­flaged and mo­tion­less on the seabed

Left: setting out to check the prawn creels, which are placed in the mid­dle of the loch. Top: five pots can yield up to 12 large, tasty prawnsAbove: check­ing the size of a lob­ster

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