Sea beet: UK chefs go wild for spinach’s coastal cousin

Sea Beet commercial production

Sea beet is one of the most common and plentiful wild vegetables and can be cultivated relatively easily too

Growing throughout the UK’s coastal areas, sea beet is just one of the many sea vegetables making its mark on restaurant menus. A wild ancestor to beetroot, sugar beet and Swiss chard, its flavour profile grabs influences from all of the above, making for a particularly tasty morsel. Produce Business UK takes a look at this common plant and its potential impact

Chefs are going crazy for wild vegetables right now – whether they’re actually wild or cultivated by glasshouse production facilities. Sea beet is one of the most common and plentiful wild vegetables, as well as being cultivated relatively easily too. But to most people in the know, it’s a mystery as to why sea beet isn’t more popular, given that its similar cousin, spinach, runs riot in the popularity stakes.

Many chefs and foragers even consider spinach to be a poor alternative once they have been introduced to the springtime young leaves of sea beet. And this plant is much more than just leaves – the whole plant is edible, from the spikes of green flowers to the at times reddish stems and its beetroot-like roots.

A member of the Amaranthaceae family, but previously a member of the Chenopodiaceae group, sea beet was first discovered in 1753 by a Swedish botanist called Carl Linnaeus. However, it’s believed to have grown on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and been harvested since prehistoric times.

Other names: Sea spinach, wild beet, wild spinach.

Latin name: Beta vulgaris.

Production: Sea beet grows naturally on the tidelines of shingle beaches, cliffs and sea walls, as well as in salt marshes, pretty much throughout the UK, apart from northern Scotland. It’s also native to the coasts of mainland Europe (with a particularly long life-span in northern Brittany), northern Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia.

Growing up to 1.2 metres and producing hermaphroditic and wind-pollinated flowers in the summer, sea beet is a perennial plant and needs moist, well-drained soils. It has a dislike for shade but it’s also a halophyte, tolerating relatively high levels of sodium in its environment. It has a ‘common’ conservation status, but its seeds are protected and should be left to naturally sow themselves. The plant grows well throughout most of the winter in the wild, except during long periods of heavy snow.

Worcestershire-based Westlands started cultivating sea beet in its hydroponic glasshouse facility three years ago to fill a difficult gap in winter seasonal production of saline leaf crops. “This enabled us extend the availability of our ‘Taste of the Sea’ range,” says a company spokesperson. “Since then, it has steadily increased in popularity with a strong demand to supply all year round.”

Appearance: Hardy in texture and appearance and dark-green in colour, sea beet has glossy, oval- or diamond-shaped leaves in changeable rosettes that can vary from plant to plant. It has an almost cactus-like texture, much like the other wild and cultivated sea veg, like salty fingers.

Season: The plant is found year round, but some say it’s best when it isn’t flowering and others only eat the leaves in spring when they are particularly delicate. If you plan to eat them, Gardeners’ World’s Alys Fowler says sea beet leaves grown in the wild after spring should be “stripped from their midribs, shredded and steamed until tender”.

Harvesting/picking: Sea beet is quite common, showing up in large amounts within various coastlines. On his website Scottish forager Mark Williams urges people to leave solo specimens alone, and to spread picking around well-established plants. If you are foraging in the wild, you also have to have the landowner’s permission to remove the roots of sea beet plants, even though the plant is plentiful.

Flavour: With an earthy taste and a robust texture, sea beet is used in place of spinach, but its saltiness makes it a great addition to a fish dish.

“The young leaves have a crisp but juicy bite, and a spinach-like creamy taste with supporting salty back notes that linger in the mouth,” says Westlands of its cultivated crop. “The succulent leaves are delicious eaten raw or lightly blanched or steamed so they just start to wilt.

“We typically supply sea beet to the more adventurous, innovative chef looking for something a bit different and special, at the same time appealing to those with a passion for foraged leaves.”

Chef fans: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nathan Outlaw, Mark Hix, Bryn Williams, Christoffer Hruskova, Andy Temple, Claude Bosi, Simon Rogan, James Golding.

How to cook it: Described by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as “the best spinach you've ever tasted”, sea beet is a versatile vegetable in the chef’s book and he suggests using it in any recipe that calls for cooked spinach.

You can boil, blanch, steam, wilt or eat sea beet raw in all manner of dishes, with soups, tarts and salads being the most traditional. What’s more, the veg holds its texture rather than boiling away to nothing like a lot of leaves. The flower spikes, which appear from June to September, are considered by some to be the best part of the plant to eat.

Dishes: Creamed sea beet gratin (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall), sag aloo, Cornish haddock with sea beet soup and olive oil (Nathan Outlaw), kippered mackerel with sea beet and rock samphire, sea beet bubble and squeak, pan-fried Cornish hake with celeriac purée and poached sea beet and razor clams.

Nutrients: Vitamin A, B6 and C, calcium, iron and magnesium.

Source from: First Choice, Galloway Wild Foods, Yun Hider or Fine Food Specialists.

Other interesting facts: In ancient times, the leaves and roots of the sea beet were used in the treatment of several diseases, particularly tumours. Sea beet juice has also been used as a treatment for ulcers.

Next big thing: Sea beet juice.

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