When I saw the news last week that the first licence to gather seaweed in England was issued to Rory MacPhee of Falmouth in Cornwall I initially thought it was granting permission to use the seaweed as fertilizer (being the keen gardener that I am!). Then on reading the article properly I discovered the seaweed licence was for gathering seaweed as food. MacPhee is keen to give seaweed a marketing overhaul, rebranding it as 'sea vegetables' and wants to take seaweed from being the preserve of health food stores to appealing to a wider audience. For more information on Rory visit www.falassa.co.uk.
I'm glad to see that England's caught up with the times. Seaweed harvesting is a small scale industry in the Outer Hebrides, Northern Ireland and South Wales which is now finding new and wider markets – and seaweed has been eaten for countless centuries along these shores.
Of course as a nation we still have a long way to go to catch up with Japan and China (where over 170,000 tons are consumed per year) but I think it's great that we are starting to realise that we can use seaweed for more than Sushi or as a fried, crispy garnish sprinkled over Asian foods. I am a fan of Laverbread (see Laverbread – the Welshman's Caviar) which incidentally is the same seaweed known as Nori in Japan that is used to make Sushi. However I know that mainstream English, and French cuisine for that matter, traditionally haven't really valued seaweeds. I don't know whether this is because eating seaweeds has been associated with times of scarcity and poverty in the past or whether it is because it has remained a peculiarity of the coastal regions never reaching further inland.
Nevertheless, seaweeds are now big news. Apart from their medicinal and nutritional benefits seaweed dishes are served in 7 out of 10 of the world's top restaurants. Among well-known fans is Heston Blumenthal, who has recommended using Kelp to make NHS food more flavoursome without using additional salt. Heston has also a best selling Steak, Ale and Kombu (Pacific variety of Kelp) Pie for Waitrose and recently served Seaweed Shepherd's Pie to BA passengers in his TV series Mission Impossible. Incredibly kilo for kilo seaweed contains more iron than sirloin steak, more fibre than prunes or bananas and more calcium than cheese.
There are around 650 edible varieties growing along the UK’s 11,000 mile coastline, although only around 35 have ever really been used for cooking. Edible seaweeds can range from delicate saline flavours to a tangy iodine taste. Some are even slightly sweet and others have little flavour at all. Apart from Laver and Kelp the better known edible seaweeds available in the UK are:
Dulse (sometimes called Dillisk, Latin name Palmaria palmata). In Ireland Dulse is dried and eaten as a traditional snack like crisps. It has a delicate salty taste and can be powdered, flaked or finely sliced. Used to add flavour to meat dishes, in soups, salads and added to bread or pizza dough.
Carrageen – (sometimes called Irish Moss, Latin name Chondrus crispus) – A natural setting agent as an alternative to gelatine. Used in desserts such as ice cream, blancmange and jelly, as a thickening agent is soups and even in toothpaste!
Sea Lettuce (Latin name Ulva lactuca) – Used in salads and as a garnish.
Sea Spaghetti (sometimes called Thongweed, Latin name Himanthalia elongata) – Used just like spaghetti! Or in salads.
Irish Wakame (sometimes called Badderlocks, Latin name Alaria esculenta) – Used fresh in salads or dried in soups and stews.
There are a fantastic range of recipes using seaweed in both savoury and sweet dishes at Celtnet here. - including one for Fruit Salad with Kirsched Sea Spaghetti. If you fancy adding seaweed to your Christmas menu Prannie Rhatigan, from Ireland's North West has written a seaweed recipe book Irish Seaweed Kitchen which contains some brilliantly inventive as well as traditional dishes, one of which is Christmas Pudding with Brandied Sea Spaghetti. You can find details at her website www.prannie.com.