Foraging – searching natural environments for edibles – is the hottest story in food right now. Spearheaded by super-star chef René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma, two-time winner of The Best Restaurant in the World, foraging has been tipped by food website Gourmandia.com as the “Next Big Trend”.
Of course, foraging is nothing new. It’s an age-old custom that’s been rediscovered by the international food community in a big way. In Ireland, it’s an integral aspect of the food culture that continues to this day, with foragers seeking out wild mushrooms in damp forests or picking blackberries from roadside bushes.
Right now, though, some of the best foraging in Ireland is taking place on our shores – and it’s all about seaweed.
Make no mistake – seaweed is the new darling of the Irish food scene. It’s why you’ll find pickled Atlantic seaweed and purple kale on the island’s Michelin-stared menus. Why celebrity chef Darina Allen writes about foraging in rock pools, and why food writer Sally McKenna waxes lyrical about creating an Irish kelp dashi on her foraging blog Kitchen Life Skills.
And it’s why slow food cook and doctor Prannie Rhatigan was moved to create an entire cookbook about it, namely the Irish Seaweed Kitchen.
“Seaweeds are enjoying something of a revival,” explains Prannie. “We have become more health conscious and aware of the fact that seaweeds are powerhouses of minerals, vitamins and trace elements. They are versatile, easy to use and most importantly taste great.”
Health benefits of seaweed
Of course, it’s not just the taste. Seaweed is a heavyweight in nutrients and vitamins, packing iodine, iron, calcium, vitamin E, vitamin C and chlorophyll beneath the slimy exterior. The brown seaweed fucus vesiculosus (commonly called bladder wrack) contains all the minerals on the planet. Irish moss or carrageenan is rich in calcium and has long been known to have healing properties. “A magic food”, according to Darina Allen.
The Irish Seaweed Company sells hand-harvested edible seaweed from the Antrim coastline, and has also joined forces with universities for medical research and development projects on the health benefits of seaweed and algae. If you want to taste some of their products, then look for dulse: a traditional edible seaweed that’s becoming popular all over the island, and even internationally once more.
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Seaweed safaris all over the shores
Over 600 types of seaweed or sea vegetables – the preferred term these days – have been identified on Ireland’s shores. As seaweed expert Annette, who demonstrates her skills in this fascinating video, and at the annual Féile Bia na Mara seafood festival on Achill Island, says of the local rock pools: “There’s kelp galore, there’s sea spaghetti, and serrated wrack in abundance. It’s a forest.”
Cheryl Cobern Browne, who made the fascinating video of Annette, concurs, “It was an eye-opening experience! So few people know the value and deliciousness of seaweed harvesting and cooking.”
Prannie admits she has a lifetimes experience of harvesting seaweeds from being taught as child by her father. But says if you want to give it a go yourself, it’s as simple as following the tide out to the lowest level and carefully giving the seaweeds “a little haircut” at the ends (never the roots) with a sharp knife or scissors.
It’s something you have to sea – and taste – for yourself.