My interest in seaweed was reawakened last month, a madeleine moment with a seaweed chip summoning salty sea air, concrete jetties, weathered hands and brown paper bags filled with dulse. Rather than the evasion of the senses Proust so keenly describes, my memories were more like speech bubbles: Mrs Beaton's seaweed soup, jellied carrageen, marbled laverbread and, most prominent among them, a dulse pt sandwich elegantly undressed on a white plate. How I longed for that sandwich!
The very next week, I found myself in a small cottage by the Atlantic Ocean on the north-west coast of Ireland. Dependably soaked through with rain, the scene was lit by May's first moon and an altogether new feeling I happened to be in the right place at the right time. This was seaweed country, the moon was full and the tides were at their lowest. According to local lore, rock pools along Downpatrick head are among the finest spots for wild seaweed in the world. In oversize wellingtons the following day, with an eye on the tide table, scissors aloft and nothing more than a plastic bag to hold my loot, I rushed to the rocks for that dulse sandwich. My mother, hands-on as ever, came with extra bags and invited an experienced forager and the local chef to join us.
Seaweeds, which attach themselves to rock with their holdfasts, comprise a stipe (stem) and fronds (leaves). At Downpatrick, black volcanic rock dashed with vibrant lichen, limpets and periwinkles share their home with 600 seaweed varieties, identified by colour (brown, red or green), habitat and, in our case, whether or not we could eat them.
Bladderwrack and bright green sea lettuce along the upper shores were the first cut, harvested sustainably leaving the holdfast intact for regrowth. Sandpipers whizzed by and we carried on to low tide where rocks fringed with duileasc (dulse), were covered on their upper surfaces in precious sleabhac (nori) which glistened like slimy black plastic. I found Nori to be the most tricky to cut and handle, and most satisfying to eat later. Farther towards the sub-tidal zone brown leaved varieties like kelp (Japanese dasai) grew in long, tough ribbons (sugar kelp) or frilly alaria (wakame), which is also found in miso soup. It seemed there was an endless supply of sea spaghetti and I got carried away. My bag sprang a leak from the weight of my greed.
Over the days that followed I prepared seaweed for travel on board a Ryanair flight to London. Sugar kelp slung to dry over the backs of chairs and sea spaghetti dangling from the rack on the ceiling, I gently teased sand from nori and dulse. Nori and carraigeen pinched delicately between wooden pegs and hung on a clothes line were brought indoors from the rain. Everything in the cottage smelt faintly of the sea. The dog loved it. I barely slept that last night, speed drying seaweeds in small batches in the oven (why didn't I think of it sooner!).
Luggage restrictions forced me to abandon books, toiletries and bulky clothing for two dozen vacuum packed bags. The sweet smell of success was shaped by the Atlantic Ocean and is still drying in my kitchen back in London, where dulse pt trials have begun. If you happen to know the secret recipe please get in touch I would appreciate the short cut.
Kate O'Brien is the editor of The Plant.
Pictured: a sarcodiotheca (red string seaweed) cyanotype created by Holly Mitchell especially for Toast Travels.
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