When Truus and David Sawyers, both former art and design teachers, lived in Dover in the mid 1960s, they took to walking from chalk cliff pathways to the beach with their two young children. On the way to the beach they picked cabbage-like plants with yellow flowers that grew along the cliffs. Truus later soaked and rinsed the cabbage, cut out the heart, and served it up steamed for dinner with rice and peeled prawns.
Apart from supplementing their income with free food from the edge of the sea, the children were kept busy and the outings became an enjoyable family activity. Each had their own net and picked shrimps, prawns and winkles from the exposed rock pools. Mussels were particularly tasty steamed with parsley and onion for 10-15 minutes, but were discarded if they didn’t open. Seafood is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamin D and minerals including iodine, selenium and zinc.
Truus has a background in horticulture and is used to being self-sufficient. She says “in those days you didn’t go to the shops to buy things, you grew them or found them”. There were no supermarkets at the time, only small independent, specialised shops. There were also regular van deliveries by greengrocers, bakers and butchers, especially in country areas.
The Sawyers family also kept two allotments and grew all their own vegetables. They grew twice as many beans as they needed, dried them in the sun and stored them in glass jars. This meant that for three quarters of the year, the family was able to feed themselves on what they produced. Truus admits it was very hard work, due to pests spoiling the crop and other people stealing their vegetables, but it was simply necessary as money was tight and there wasn’t much fresh food available. Unsurprisingly, their outdoor lifestyle and intake of fresh wild food kept them in good health.
Once they moved to Brighton, they continued to walk everywhere, always picking something along the way such as hazelnuts, damsons, samphire and wild spinach from the riverbanks. In the spring, edible sea kale could be found on the beach between Newhaven and Seaford. It is a large plant with a high vitamin C content and has slightly rubbery and crinkly blueish leaves and white flowers that smell like honey. David’s background in botany and zoology helped them identify what was edible, but they were always careful with mushrooms.
David has a rare and unique skill, entirely self-taught. As a 9 year-old he started fishing in the sea. Swimming backwards and upright, he first fished in rivers holding a hazel stick fashioned into a rod. Later, he wore flippers, fishing for mackerel and horsemackerel, bass and bream. He once even caught a very large herring called a shad. Plastic lures serve as bait – they look like a small fish glinting in the water when he moves his rod to and fro. Different fish inhabit different areas of the sea around Brighton and Hove, depending on the depth of the sea and deposit on the sea floor (ship wrecks, gravel, mud and vegetation).
David has caught sole and flounders with spears and, occasionally, dabs. He has also dived for lobsters, crabs and eels. Truus, it must be said, is no great lover of eels, explaining that the snake-like fish is extremely rich in fats and very difficult to skin.
Recovering the delicate ‘meat’ from spider crabs requires skill and patience. David laments that he used to dive for spider crabs on the sea bed beneath Brighton’s Palace Pier, but they seem to have all but disappeared. There is still plenty of seaweed next to the pier and David munches on brown ‘sea lettuce’, a ribbony type of seaweed exposed in low water. He also collects bladderwrack, carrageen, dulse from the beach to serve as a nutritious plant food for his beautiful vegetable garden.
Over the last decades, pollution has started to become a serious issue here on the south coast, too. The sea used to be teeming with fish, shrimps and fish-eating birds such as terns. Temperature changes and overfishing is undermining wildlife ecosystems and coastal protection measures are urgently needed, so that the Sawyers’ grandchildren may also walk with their children and sample the nutrient-rich abundance of plant and animal life at the edge of the sea. Fish and seafood are not just useful sources of protein, but also fatty acids, vitamins and minerals – all critical nutrients needed for the brain.
As Professor Michael Crawford (1) warns: “How are we going to feed the next generation with the collapse of the marine environment and fisheries? It really is a very serious threat to the survival of our species. Options for this century are an increase in neurological disorders, a decline in IQ and an increase in anti-social behaviour. It is a great tragedy that the ecosystems in most estuaries have been destroyed by pollution. The brain evolved in the sea. The challenge is to become seriously concerned with the development of the marine food chain, clean the rivers, estuaries and coastlines, and conserve and agriculturalise the oceans. We need to do this to improve our physical health and maintain the mental skills required to manage a planet populated by 6 billion people.” (2)
(1) Imperial College, London. Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition
(2) Report from the FABResearch Conference “Feeding Young Minds – Omega 3 for Behaviour, Learning and Mood: Science, Policy and Practice” on 3.10.2008, compiled by Martina Watts (Report is available from www.fabresearch.org)