Underneath our very noses here in Ireland we have a rich culinary resource that goes largely untapped; and that gastro-goldmine is our sea vegetable-rich shoreline. From dillisk to carrageen and bladder wrack to alaria, there are myriad varieties of edible Irish seaweed that keen cooks should be charging to the shoreline to collect for their flavour-enhancing qualities as well as their significant health-boosting benefits.
The main species of edible sea vegetable fall into three types, loosely based on their pigmentation: green, which includes the more unusual sea grass and sea lettuce; brown, which includes kelp, alaria and sea spaghetti; and the most popular red which includes carrageen, dillisk and nori.
In Japan, of course, seaweed in all manner of guises forms a cornerstone of their daily diet in a way that bread does for many of us in the west. And indeed, for centuries coastal communities in Ireland have included seaweed in their diet.
Using Carrageen moss, which is rich in natural gelatine, to set jellies and desserts and also as a traditional tincture to cure coughs. Baking nutty, salty dillisk into crusty soda bread to add a savoury kick and adding kelp or alaria to ‘beef’ up the flavour of stews and soups. Before the advent of chemical fertiliser, seaweed was also valued as a potent natural soil; think of the Bull McCabe breaking his back to ferry seaweed up from the shore to lay on that much-coveted field of his. Like so many other traditional Irish ingredients at that time, seaweed was dismissed as ‘peasant’ food – but things couldn’t have come more full circle.
The publication of Dr Prannie Rhattigan’s magnificent book, Irish Seaweed Kitchen, has had no small part to play in this oceanic organism’s glorious rebirth. Her book is replete not only with delicious, imaginative recipes but also with colourful anecdotes, historical facts and nutritional information relating to every manner and form of Irish seaweed. She encourages you to make roasted red pepper and lentil soup enriched with savoury kelp, toasted nori pancakes with St Tola goats cheese, seaweed and porcini mushroom risotto, moreish dillisk champ and even a surprisingly refreshing seaweed smoothie.
Prannie is delighted to see awareness of seaweed spreading, “I was thrilled to see an imaginative seaweed drink entry featuring in the Young Scientist of the Year competition and it’s great to see more and more local shops stocking Irish seaweeds. I would urge shop owners and suppliers to look at the list of harvesters on my website (www.prannie.com) and replace Japanese seaweeds with our own Irish seaweeds – harvested seasonally from our own pristine waters.”
And Prannie’s not the only stalwart seaweed supporter. Darina Allen also includes an array of mouth-watering seaweed recipes in her Forgotten Skills cookbook. And producers such as Seamus Moran and his wife Carmel of Lo-Tide foods (www.lo-tide.com) in Co Mayo are going from strength to strength producing a range of inventive seaweed based products.
“What a lot of people don’t realise is that the chemical flavour enhancer MSG is actually a copy of a naturally occurring element in seaweed,” Seamus explains. “Seaweed is one of the most natural and original flavour enhancers around – encapsulating that lip-smacking ‘umami’ fifth taste. We are now producing a natural seaweed-based product to replace commercial brines used to pack processed deli meats. We are supplying a lot of forward-thinking food companies such as M&S and others in Scandinavia and the demand is growing every day.”
Apart from this Seamus produces an award-winning range of seaweed sausages, dillisk bread, seaweed pasta and a choice of attractively-packaged gourmet sea vegetables. If you’re a seafood pasta fan, wait until you taste Seamus’ seaweed-infused pasta, served piping hot, tossed through with freshly cooked mussels, chopped chilli, basil, garlic and finished with a lick of cream and white wine. Divine.