Sensational, salty and startling at once, seaweed is so much more than a bunch of slippery tentacles underfoot when heading out for a swim.
Swimmer Ju Lewis on how to forage and cook it.
To get your curiosity peaked, I wanted to start you off with a recipe – you won’t see this on Jamie Oliver any time soon – and then teach you how to spot and forage this delicious superfood.
This is my recipe for no-egg scones with Gutweed and Sea Lettuce. These are great straight out of the oven, and with a bit of cream cheese or just butter. They taste particularly nice with a hot drink and whilst shivering after a swim…
Gutweed and Sea lettuce
300g plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
Large handful of dried Sea lettuce (Ulva Lactuca) /Gutweed (Enteromorpha intestinalis).
300g creme fraiche or sour cream
Pre-heat oven to 220oc (or 200oc fan/Gas mark 6-7). Sift flour and baking powder together in a large bowl. Add salt and seaweed. Stir in creme fraiche until you have a wet dough. Turn out onto a well-floured surface and roll out gently to around 1cm thick. Cut ovals with a cookie cutter, and place onto a lined baking tray. Brush with milk or egg. Put in the oven for 8-10 minutes, until lightly browned.
As a sea swimmer and life long rock-pooler, seaweed has traditionally been a background player. Annoyingly slippery to walk on in search of far more charismatic foreshore fauna. Freakishly screech-inducing for fellow swimmers – at low tides when kelp fronds grab ankles, and during jellyfish season, when every goggle-bumping loose strand masquerades as a tentacle. Even in biology-teacher (work) mode, seaweed is often disregarded as a necessary yet tedious demonstrator of ecological concepts – rocky shore zonation transect anyone?
It was only after swimming over a kelp bed on the Torbay Agatha Christie Mile last June, where a forest of greens and browns had waved beneath me, that I decided to get out the seashore books and resolved to learn more about this vast biomass only metres from my daily commute and local swim spots.
A September gathering of the local swim shoal took us armed with common sense and a few books, to a diverse rocky foreshore – a wide range of fauna stems from a wide range of flora, in this case the algae. The aim was to forage, on a micro-scale. Autumn however, it transpires, is not the best time for seaweed foraging – the growing season has passed for most species. However, successful attempts with crispy fried seaweed led to a vow to investigate further when the weather turned for the warmer.
So this year, as spring turns to summer, I find myself drying and crumbling green seaweeds, and with a stash of small pots in my kitchen containing smells and tastes of the sea. There have been kelp crisps (wow!), crispy fried Thongweed (more wow!), and scones made with Sea Lettuce and Dulse. Sea Lettuce and/or Gutweed mashed into soft butter, chilled, then a pat melted over a piece of white fish is the current family favourite.
If foraging, follow the guidelines – take small amounts, from a wide area. Snip off pieces with scissors to allow regrowth, rather than pulling up the holdfast. Check water quality and avoid outflow areas, or collecting after heavy rain which may have induced runoff from farmland. Check tide times – don’t get cut off on lower shores at the turn of tide. Most species are edible, although a few are now suggested to avoid due to containing certain compounds – Red Rags (Dilsea carnosa) is amongst these, which could be mistaken for Dulse (Palmaria palmata). Other, less common species can exude harmful acids – do your research or go on a course with an expert!
Most recently I spent a happy day at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth learning identification methods and skills, looking down microscopes and using comprehensive books alongside the professional knowledge of our expert tutors. This was one of many excellent outreach events that the general public can attend at the MBA. A mini-fieldwork collection trip allowed us to find the elusive Golden Kelp (for whom these southern shores are the furthest northerly distribution), and see for ourselves the vast proliferation of Wakame (non-native) outcompeting the Sugar Kelp. We were shown the tiny buttons of Thongweed, and the 2 metre long reproductive bodies that grow from them, and collected small samples to take back to the lab, and to press in the traditional way, using newspaper and string.
As I swim I now look down with awe at the greens, browns and reds swishing below me and find connection, in that they are supporting a wealth of grazers, herbivores and the food chains above them. The slimy carpet on the rocks, previously an irritation, stops me in my tracks to lift the dangling wracks in search of Pink Paint or Red Sausages. And while loose seaweed has always provided the chance for comedy hair or beard photos whilst swimming, it is now possible to choose my species by name in some cases!
The Edible Seashore – River Cottage Handbook No.5 by John Wright
Extreme Greens – Understanding Seaweed by Sally McKenna
For foragers: try an introduction course such as An Introduction to Seaweed Foraging with Galloway Wild Foods.