It’s tasty, nutritious and filling. And it’s free. So what should you look for and how do you cook it?
Like many foraged foods, seaweed emerged from the wilderness to capture the imagination of Britain’s celebrity chefs. It has long been prized in Japan, where it is as commonplace as egg and chips. The Japanese have got it right: seaweed is a delicious, versatile and extraordinarily healthy food. It will also fill you up; a breakfast that includes seaweed will keep all but the most habitual snacker off the biscuits until lunchtime.Invariably, the seaweed served by posh restaurants in the UK is imported, but this is set to change. Although it is already commercially harvested in Scotland and Ireland, Rory MacPhee, a veteran Cornish forager, has become the first person to get a licence to cultivate and sell seaweed in England.
It is a hugely important step. Historically, concerns over safety and sustainability have meant that formal seaweed farming was outlawed, but now, together with the environmental body Natural England, the Crown Estate has agreed to an official process that involves the careful collection of this much-neglected resource. But until MacPhee’s seaweed hits the supermarket, we can still go out and forage for the stuff ourselves. There are half a dozen species along the Dorset coast and in an afternoon I can find enough to last an entire year (it dries well).
Fortunately, the edible species such as dulse, kelp, carragheen, laver and gutweed are easy to identify and, unlike fungi and flowering plants, there are no poisonous seaweeds near to UK shores. Sadly, there is no common law right to pick them (unless they are already detached) but, in practice, taking a kilo home for tea won’t get you into trouble. But, first, be sure to ask whoever owns the beach – it could be the local council, the National Trust or an individual.
Conservation is easily addressed. Take a little here and there, and remove just a part of each specimen, carefully, with scissors. Be particularly restrained with laver, as it is possible to strip a beach of this seaweed in two hours.
Seaweed should be thoroughly washed at least three times by swirling it in a bowl of water, then lifting it out. In general, boiling it for half an hour and expecting anything remotely palatable won’t work – different seaweeds require vastly different approaches. That said, dulse is one example that can be treated just like cabbage. I am rather proud to have incorporated its red fronds into mainstream British cuisine with my Dulse Bubble and Squeak.