Perhaps you pick the odd mushroom when you are out walking. Maybe you look for horseradish roots by your local rivers, you go blackberrying in the autumn and you break off from sandcastle building to look for wild mussels in Cornwall. Or if you’ve really got into the trend for foraging, you might hunt wild garlic for seasoning or elderflowers to make your own cordial. But I bet you have never picked up seaweed on the beach and taken it home to make crisps. And until a month ago, neither had I.
My family and I spend our summers on a coastal farm in Shetland. There, in the moments between walking, fishing and fighting with the wind, I daydream about self-sufficiency. We’ve got a wind turbine and we’ve also got easy access to plenty of protein (lamb, trout, mackerel, crab, mussels and, if needs be, sea urchins). However, we have no green vegetables.
Lucky then that a friend introduced me to Xa Milne, of Forage Rangers. She took me to Elie, a smart seaside village in Fife with a seaweed-strewn beach; lectured me about the vitamin and medicinal benefits of seaweed (very good for you); and taught me how to identify most of the edible varieties. Then she pushed a copy of her book (Seaweed and Eat It) on to me and offered a few basic instructions on cooking with seaweed. It seemed pretty straightforward. Some seaweeds aren’t great to eat, she said, but none are toxic. You can eat them raw, you can dry them and use them for flavouring, or you can just cook them much as you would anything else green. Simple.
My first foraging trip near home was a disaster. All the local beaches seemed to yield was brown bladder wrack – which is as nasty to eat as it sounds. Then we went to visit friends in the south of the island. There the beach at St Ninian’s Isle proved more productive. We found sea lettuce, two kinds of kelp and a seemingly endless supply of gutweed.
The next day, at low tide, our own beaches showed themselves to be just as forage friendly. Acres of gutweed, more kelp, sea spaghetti, laver (or nori) and pepper dulse. This last type tastes of garlic and pepper (strongly) and is best eaten raw straight off the rocks – which is exactly how we ate it. Gutweed is pretty tasteless but when served raw with a dressing of lemon and soy sauce it wasn’t bad at all. The sea lettuce worked out fairly well, too. I made a mackerel ceviche with fish we had just caught and added the lettuce to the lime and chilli.
But of all my seaweed gastronomic forays, the most popular around our table was nori. In its raw state it looks like torn up bin bags, but dried in the oven on a very low heat and sprinkled on mackerel sashimi, it reminded us of the dinners we had in Tokyo izakayas back in our stockbroking days – even with Colman’s mustard instead of wasabi. It also worked brilliantly in a haddock and mussel chowder and seasoned an utterly delicious crab soup nicely.
However, my absolute favourite seaweed food was kelp crisps, something taken from Edible Seashore by John Wright (part of the River Cottage Handbook series). We found a nice little sugar kelp patch and baked (rather than fried) the harvest. Then I broke it up into crisps and fed it to my guests with a glass of sherry. The foodies among them adored it.
We had some failures, chief among them my sea spaghetti with mussels and garlic butter. Xa had told me I could cook sea spaghetti just as I would normal spaghetti. Not Shetland sea spaghetti as it turns out. It was just too tough to eat. If it hadn’t been for all the time I had spent cleaning the mussels the whole lot would have gone in the bin. But overall the seaweed experiment was a grand success. I now have a whole new food group to work with – and I know where to go if I ever really do need to be self-sufficient. The beach.
‘Seaweed and Eat It: A Family Foraging and Cooking Adventure’ by Fiona Houston and Xa Milne (Virgin); ‘Edible Seashore’ by John Wright (Bloomsbury)
Brown shrimp risotto with dill and sea lettuce
1.2 litres white chicken stock, or vegetable stock
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
250g arborio risotto rice
4tbsp white wine
50g parmesan, finely grated
2tbsp dried crumbled sea lettuce
3tbsp finely chopped fresh dill
150g cooked brown shrimps, peeled
How to process sea lettuce:
Lay out on trays/racks
Dry near warm heat source or if cool overnight.
Ready when crumbles easily.
1. Heat the stock in a saucepan over a low heat until almost simmering.
2. In a heavy based saucepan, melt the butter and lightly fry the shallots and garlic for 3-5 minutes until soft.
3. Add the rice and, stirring continuously, add the white wine. Cook until wine has almost evaporated.
4. Start ladling in the stock only adding more once the previous spoonful has been absorbed. Once the rice is creamy in texture and the rice grains are cooked through (15-20 minutes), add the parmesan, shrimps, sea lettuce and fresh dill. Cook for a further 2 minutes until the cheese has melted and the shrimps are warmed through. Taste for seasoning.
Recipe supplied by www.foragerangers.com