Just off Streedagh beach looking onto Donegal Bay – the most amazing collection of edible seaweeds: sugar kelp, dulse, sea spaghetti, pepper dulse, carrageenan, sea lettuce, velvet horn, bladderwrack, alaria and a very pretty pink seaweed (erect coralline) which is also pure calcium carbonate and tastes like sand! And that is not counting the the nori, oarweed, laminaria hyperborea, channelled wrack, serrated wrack and – horror of horrors as it should not have been there – sargassum, that we found elsewhere on the beach.
So how did I come to be wading along the rocks harvesting seaweed? Well, back in 2012 we reviewed Prannie Rhatigan’s delightful Irish Seaweed Kitchen and tried some of the recipes – and I have been adding seaweed to a whole range of dishes ever since. So when my cousin in County Leitrim sent me a flyer about a seaweed walk with Prannie along her native Sligo coastline, I was on it like a shot.
Prannie, like most of those who were on the walk with us, had harvested and eaten seaweed all her life. But in Prannie’s case her interest and been nurtured by her father, a seaweed enthusiast who had taken all his children harvesting. He taught them when and how to harvest the seaweeds so that they would not be damaged and would taste their best. Prannie went on to study medicine and the nutritional value of seaweeds and is now a widely recognised expert on the subject.
With world food supplies under ever greater strain, ‘sea farming’ of highly nutritious, mineral-rich sea weeds and algae seems a very promising way to go. Indeed, sea farming/aquaculture is already well underway along the Irish and Scottish coastlines and coastlines around the world. An excellent article in the Irish Times last November describes many of the innovative approaches of prospective sea-farmers – including American Bren Smith’s 3-D vertical ocean farming. He grows ‘long lengths of sugar kelp on ropes suspended from buoys, beneath which can hang mussels and scallops, with crates of oysters below those again, and clams growing in the mud beneath. It’s a vertical column of intensive ocean farming in which everything is in symbiosis, with the kelp eating up carbon, and the shellfish filtering and cleansing the water and creating an artificial vertical reef that shelters crabs, shrimps and scores of other marine species.’
However, sea farming in the west of Ireland has hit a snag in that, as of now, it is impossible to get a license to set up. The Irish seaweed company Arramara, which is part owned by the Irish state has been taken over by Canadian multinational sea farmers, Acadian Seaplants, who already control 75% of the the sea farming ‘resource’ in Nova Scotia. As part of this somewhat dodgy looking deal a review of sea weed harvesting licensing was initiated in 2014 and has still not been completed. And until it completed, no licenses will be granted. The twists and turns of the saga are arcane in the extreme but suspicion is strong amongst frustrated sea farmers that the delays are the result of Acadian’s attempt, in cahoots with the Irish government, at a seaweed resource grab. If you are feeling mentally agile, you can read all about it here in the Irish Times.
However, back to our harvesting walk. We were told to bring a sharp knife or scissors and a big plastic bag. When we met Prannie in the Streedagh car park we were each given an excellent little laminated guide, designed to go with you on your seaweed walk and to tell you what to cut and how. And, amazingly, everything that was in that guide was also on those rocks… So, just to highlight a few:
This is sea lettuce. A brilliant vibrant green – very soft and paper thin. Also known as Ulva. There are about seven varieties of it. ‘Young plants are tasty in spring but have more Vitamin C if left till the summer months.’ Not to be confused with sea grass which is also bight green but comes in curly fronds rather than leaves.
You can add it, fresh, to a salad – or purée it and turn it into a pesto – very tasty…
This is nori drying on a clothes rack when we got home. It is also very fine and paper thin and can only be peeled off the rocks in relatively small pieces – those hanging on the dryer. And when they dry they curl up into half or quarter of their size. And, in case you are wondering, nori in Japan does not grow bigger and flatter! Those sheets of nori that you buy for wrapping your sushi – they are a cheat! They are pulverised nori which is then reconstituted into sheets. Although, to be fair, there is no way that you can wrap anything in naturally harvested and dried nori – I tried. Mind you these little curly dried bits were jolly tasty – and what a brilliant colour!
This is sea spaghetti growing in the water – out of those strange little cups.
It is very long and often splits into ‘forks’ – as you can see in the middle plant. You can eat it fresh – chewy but not overly so. Or you can dry it (when it goes black) and the use it in soups or as an alternative pasta. Indeed that was what we used for the smoked salmon recipe that appears on the cover of Anna’s FreeFrom all’Italiana book! We did cook that for about 15 minutes at the end of which it was still chewy (about the same texture as the fresh one actually) but not unpleasantly so. And delicious with smoked salmon and pesto.
The pepper dulse was also delicious fresh out of the sea – really peppery! Almost a chilli hit. I was so keen on it that I stashed some in a plastic bag and stowed it away on Ryanair on the way home. (Not sure what the scanner made of it.) But interestingly, when I got it back, took it out of the bag, washed it and dried it, it had stopped tasting peppery. It was still very more-ish but now just tasted slightly salty and sea-ey.
And, looking very similar, but with less ‘leafy’ fronds, is carrageenan. Along with the dulse, carrageenan was the one seaweed that everyone on the walk knew and used. A great thickener for everything from soup to desserts. Carrageenan is also heavily used in the food industry, also for thickening. It is to be found in ice creams, beer, patés, toothpaste, shampoo, pet food, personal lubricants, soya milk and even shoe polish!! There have been some questions over whether carrageenan might ‘contribute to gastrointestinal malignancy’ but evidence seems very mixed.
And finally, the most spectacular – sugar kelp, looking for all the world like snoozing crocodiles… with dulse and sea spaghetti in the foreground and sea lettuce to the right.
I am not entirely sure what you use the sugar kelp for as, when tasted it was extremely chewy and really did not taste sweet at all but in her book, Prannie has four recipes which include it so I guess it must be OK.
Nothing to do with the seaweed, although Prannie is seen here prising off some sea grass. These ‘rocks’ had been thought to be part of one of the Spanish Armada ships which were discovered in 2015 in Streedagh bay – and which have since yielded a treasure trove of canons and other goodies. See this report in the Irish Times.
In fact it appears that this is the remains of a Butter Boat – one of the many that carried butter from the west of Ireland to Scotland in the 19th century. And family history has it that my great grandfather, who was ‘from these parts’, was one of those who exported butter to Scotland and that he died as a result of stubbing his toe on the Butter Boat on one of his trips. The toe was not treated and went septic and, in those days before penicillin, he died….
Cooking with seaweed
However, back to seaweed…. Although Prannie has loads of excellent seaweed recipes in her book (this, by the way, is her Sticky Figgy Pudding with brandied Alaria) you can add seaweed to almost any dish. If you are lucky enough to be able to harvest it fresh, just wash it thoroughly, chop it and add it to salads. Or, as we did use it as an unusual base for a pesto.
If you are using it dried (see below for where you can buy it) you can chop it and add it to soups or stews in pieces. If they are going to be long cooked then you do not really need to soak it first; if only cooked for a short while, then a couple of hours soaking in cold water beforehand would be a good idea. Alternatively, you can chop or grind it and use it as a seasoning. SeaGreens who have been importing organic seaweeds from the Arctic for some years, sell it as a condiment. In which case think of it as a super flavourful salt.
Different seaweeds each have specific nutritional virtues so you would need to Google each one by name. But overall they are low in calories, high in fibre and a good prebiotic. In mineral terms they are high in iodine, copper, calcium and iron. (Although most of us are iodine deficient so eating seaweed is a good thing, if you have thyroid problems you need to take advice as too much can be worse than too little.) They are also high in vitamins, especially folic acid and Vitamin K. And… they are an excellent detox, easy to absorb (bioavailable) and easy on the digestion. And if you want to just focus on their nutritional values and forget them as a food, you can buy seaweed supplements. Seagreens will oblige as will a whole range of supplement manufacturers.
And then of course you can use seaweed for skincare. Sadly we did not get time to have a seaweed bath this time – but it is a must if you happen to find yourself in the West of Ireland. You can indulge at Leenane in County Galway, at Kilcullen’s in County Sligo or at Water World in Bundoran.
And I have long since lost track of the number of skincare products that include seaweed – check out the FreeFrom Skincare Awards previous years winners for some great products.
Where to buy Irish seaweed to eat
Algaran from County Donegal sell organic seaweed products to eat and for bathing.
Blath na Mara on the Aran Islands sells dried seaweed to eat and for bathing.
Irish Seaweeds sell a range of dried seaweeds and some soaps
The Irish Seaweed Company from County Antrim sell dried seaweed to eat and for baths
Wild Irish Seaweeds sell both dried seaweed and skincare products – and offer seaweed safaris.
If you want to go on one of Prannie’s Seaweed walks
Keep an eye on the Irish Seaweed Kitchen site although, as she says, she is not very good at updating it with events…. Or email her and let her know what dates you might be able to visit. However, be aware that seaweed harvesting is totally dependent on the season, the weather and the tides so walks do not happen that often.
But even if you cannot get to harvest any seaweed, a visit to the west of Ireland can never do anyone any harm. How could it when you have beaches like this to walk along?