Foraging for local treasures on Jersey

Ella Walker

The flight to Jersey from London is so short, there's almost no time to get hungry. We coast up and then down in less time than it takes to get through a glass-and-a-half of red and a packet of peanuts.

Yet the food is the reason behind my weekend-long jaunt to the island. The splodge of land off the coast of Normandy, along with its smaller, knobbly-shaped neighbour Guernsey, is generally considered a tax haven for those with dexterous accountants, or a retreat for retirees - or both; not a gourmet destination.

Stick with those stereotypes though, and you miss out on the raw-boned, lunar landscape of Havre Des Pas beach in St Helier, and some seriously good oysters.

While a huge percentage of Jersey's food is imported, and a chunk of its earth padded with firm Jersey Royals, Longueville Manor in St Saviour is championing the garden-to-table movement.

The hotel's walled kitchen garden is tufty with rainbow chard, their upright stalks in sunset hues; fat pumpkins and waxy gourds await a future blitzed into soup, and a stretch of crinkly-leafed raspberry canes tangle together like clasped fingers.

But it's the micro herbs in the lean-to greenhouse that you really get a taste of in the 15th Century oak-panelled dining room. Plump hand-dived north coast scallops come with snarls of lemony shoots from the glasshouse, while poached lobster in an Asian broth is garlanded with pea fronds.

The kitchen is executive chef Andrew Baird's domain, but he's always got one eye on the sky and the current. He tells of the island's 12-metre tides which suck in and out, concealing the watery homes of scallops, rays and turbot, and is always assessing whether it's a good day to go squid fishing after work.

"The bigger the moon, the bigger the tide," he explains, "meaning lots of running water, which is good for seabass and mackerel. If it's a small moon, you get more John dory and red mullet." And keeping in with local fishermen is crucial when their catch determines your menu.

Bushcraft and outdoors expert Kazz is very much another Jersey "bean" (aka local). We meet in a sand dune-strewn lay-by off Jersey's eight-kilometre road, a stretch of asphalt that charts the length of St Ouen's Beach, a huge curved slab of sand the colour of pineapple flesh, which morphs into craggy basalt rock pools and then tumbles into swathes of surfable waves.

Kazz has been foraging for 20 years and, when he's not supplying local restaurants with wild herbs and seaweed, runs two-and-a-half-hour coastal foraging walks for those keen to get involved. He also seems to know everyone on the island. Tell a Jersey taxi driver you're going foraging, and instead of asking what it is, they're more likely to say: "You going with Kazz?"

In wellies (later, calf-deep in a rock pool he remembers one has a hole in it), sunglasses and with thick dreadlocks tracing down his back, he marches us down to the ocean. "We are bomb-proof if we've still got seaweed," he says in all seriousness, handing me a curled leaf of sea beet. "It's got everything you need to survive."

Between plunging our hands into the cool troughs of the rock pools, liberating luminous green clumps of salty, crunchy sea-blight, and tasting the rubbery blades of pepper dulse, the "truffle of the sea" (it really does have that pungent truffle flavour), Kazz shares his rules and wisdom. "Only ever pick from the top third to preserve the plants," he recommends.

It's a crash course in seaweed nutrition: Sea purslane for vitamin A and omega 3; kelp is packed with natural MSG; for every 100g of Nori, 25 per cent is protein; red strands of dulse are high in iodine and make a great substitute for bacon; rock samphire is a blood purifier; while serrated wrack makes for the "ultimate bath bomb" because of the oil it secretes.

There's not just seaweed to scour the coast for though. Incredibly, if you know how and where to look, you can collect enough shellfish for supper, which Kazz can be persuaded to cook up over a fire pit on the beach. He places a prized and pearlescent, softly palpitating ormer (or abalone) in my palm, promising "they taste like steak".

We spot a muddy brown flatfish dozing unobtrusively - apparently they can grow to the size of a dinner plate - and brave the clacking fury of a notoriously vicious red-eyed velvet swimming crab, whose shell is aptly plush.

An elderly gentleman in full fishing cap and jacket shows us his catch of the day, pulling a bona fide sea monster from a sack - a glossy, muscular conga eel, as thick as a tyre and as tall as a man. His dog helped him spook it from its home beneath the sand.

"It's like bingo, you never know what you'll find under a rock," says Kazz, hefting one after another until finally we uncover two lobsters (they mate for life), electric blue and smattered with ink black spots; the undersides of their claws are the palest salmon pink.

At Sumas in Gorey, on the far east of the island beside Mont Orguil Castle, there's a lobster on almost every table, split open like an edible game of Operation, where the challenge is to pick out the creamiest hunks of flesh.

With views out over Gorey harbour, which rocks steadily with snub-nosed boats, my crab risotto disappears almost as quickly a serving of Jersey oysters. Fished from the nearby Royal Bay of Grouville, the silken molluscs are poached in white wine sauce and topped with cucumber and herbs - we're told to knock them back alongside an icy gin and tonic.

It's good, but not quite as good as drinking Kazz's homemade elderflower champagne from the back of his orange VW, the memory of holding a live lobster still fluttering the nerves in your hands.