Once a poverty food, seaweed is now a sought after ingredient that hides the so called fifth taste, umami.
At high tide limpets use their feet to wander from their rock to get their radulas into seaweed. The seaweeds that limpets graze upon are autotrophs or primary producers, at the base of the food chain. They provide food and habitat for an array of (herbivore) predators. Snails, sea urchins, crabs, limpets, abalone and seals are all seaweed gourmands and to this list, we should add an increasing number of human enthusiasts.
Why I eat seaweed:
I live on the Outer Hebridean Isle of South Uist, where at times, the white sandy beaches are strewn with waist high tangles of storm wrecked seaweed. Growing vegetables on a windswept Isle is a labour of love and heavily dependent on access to shelter. Some Islanders enjoy the fruits of their efforts but for me, I rely on the Island supermarket. The terrestrial vegetables on display can often look weary after transport across the Minch and down the Isles. In stormy weather the supermarket shelves may well end up bare. In a moment of needs-must I turned to the ‘sea vegetables’ on my local beach. Although storm cast dulse, growing as an epiphyte, may glisten in the sun, storm damaged seaweed is not fit for eating – but is fine for crafting herbarium-style. Despite the scarcity of alternatives, I have truly come to value the tastes and textures of our local seaweeds but my husband, an island GP, is keen to have an evidence based view on how nutritious these seaweeds really are. The nutrients are there but we need to know just how well humans absorb them. There are over 650 species around the British coast – we have much to learn about seaweeds and how to make the most of them. I am however convinced that there is seasonal as well as geographical variation. Many foragers talk of seaweed growing back in January but I’ve yet to spot varied Ulva spp. on my local beach until late February.
How to forage Seaweed:
Sea vegetables are grouped by colour: red, green or brown; although to be candid, laver (a red seaweed) often looks bin liner black. Seaweeds should be cut from their hold fast where they bind to the rock or seabed. A plant has roots; marine algae have holdfasts. Pick a little here and there, no more than a sixth and don’t pick for the neighbourhood, just for yourself. Do not be tempted to stray towards commercial foraging, even if you do it out of generosity not for payment. My hint is to use a separate bag for each species you collect. Seaweed foraging is an occasion when a plastic bag is recycled with good conscience. I’ve invested in a plastic shopping bag; its convenient holes allow drainage. Cotton or other material bags have no merit; some seaweeds are veritable sponges.
What to look for at a low spring or big tide – maximum exposure:
Carrageen this may be Chodrus crispus or Grape Pip Weed Mastocarpus stellatus both work as a setting agent. The Grape Pip Weed, in my opinion, gives a better set – and Dickensian Aberdonian sellers concurred. Think of carrageen as vegan gelatine. There is a recipe for marshmallows in Seaweed in the Kitchen. It gives a shine to casseroles too. There is certainly more to carrageen than the Hebridean milk pudding. That said carrageen does show a particular reaction with milk; if you use milk in your recipe you will need less carrageen.
Dulse Palmaria palmata, a red seaweed, has been heralded as the new bacon by researchers at Oregon State University; a point of interest to those averse to washing bacon grill pans. Dulse is also a thickener, adding texture to soups, casseroles, curries and sauces.
Laver Porphyra spp. is excellent for novice seaweed cooks to try out. It is similar to the nori you find in sushi bars. Nori is farmed and comes from a species of the genus Pyropia, typically Pyropia yezoensis or P. tenera. This latter species is probably non existent in the wild. Laver, however, is available, and in the intertidal zone which is useful because you can find and harvest it on a low, sluggish neap tide. In comparison with some seaweeds, its taste is mild.
Pepper Dulse Osmundea pinnatifida has tiny lacy, fern-like fronds and a piquant peppery flavour. It is tricky to prize from the rocks and harvesting takes time. Once dried your labour may seem poorly rewarded but fortunately less of this seaweed is definitely more ,where flavour is concerned.
Sea Lettuce Ulva lactuca looks like common or garden lettuce and, in my view, can be a bully to other ingredients, if not added wisely. It likes human effluent so pick it in rock pools, not close to suspect freshwater drains.
Sugar Kelp Saccharina latissima is a crinkly brown seaweed that reminds me of a mermaid’s tail. It can grow to bath mat size but pick it when it is young and tender. Washed and shredded it will cook in the same time as a root vegetable.
I’m fickle but my current favourite seaweed is dabberlocks especially the smaller succulent ‘wings’. Its botanical name Alaria esculenta (Latin for edible wings) gives it the food thumbs up – it was deemed to be food by Linnaeus.
What to do with seaweed in the Kitchen:
Wash seaweed well and in the case of laver, wash it again. Laver retains both sand and water – like a sponge. Allow laver extra time to relax in the colander too. Place a jug underneath and expect to collect copious amounts of red sea stock. Laver is a red seaweed but may appear olive or even bin liner black. A salad spinner is useful to remove excess water. Tiny shells have a liking for carrageen (as they do pepper dulse) so wash this seaweed as well as possible in a rock pool, before you leave the beach.
How to store seaweed:
Deal with fresh seaweed as soon as possible. It will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days and dulse and laver freeze well but do wash fresh seaweed before storing. The brown seaweed Sea spaghetti Himanthalia elongata, which is now available in a supermarket should be blanched before it is frozen. Treat this seaweed as you would pasta. Unlike pasta it will change colour when it is thrown in boiling water – from brown to green. Dulse and kelp are kitchen chameleons too.
Washed seaweeds can be dried and then ground with ease. If you are keen on this idea, invest in a food dehydrator. Dried seaweed is expensive because fresh seaweed is so full of water. The joy of dried seaweed is that the taste is concentrated; so less is more.
Fiona Bird lives on South Uist, is a former Masterchef finalist and is the author of three books, the most recent being Seaweed in the Kitchen (June 2015), a study of the history of seaweed, harvesting and its use in a British Kitchen is available from Prospect Books. You can follow Fiona here…
Photos copyright Fiona Bird unless otherwise stated