We came alive in seawater, and it still dwells within us
Swimming in the ocean is akin to immersing ourselves in a bath of the fundamental elements of our universe
If you get lucky with the rod and catch some mackerel, gut, wash and rinse them in seawater before bringing them home. Photograph: Thinkstcok
The exams are wrapped, the schools are closed, the car is packed, and you’re heading off to the sunny southeast, or the Wild Atlantic Way, or the Copper Coast, or whatever little piece of the coastline has your name on it.
But pause for a moment, as you try to cram the sunblock and the surfboard into and on to the car, and ask why the coast draws us like lemmings when it’s holiday time? Why does The Irish Times run travel features such as “Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside”, showcasing 10 hotels with a sandy beach and shoreline within a stone’s throw all around our coastline? The answer might be more fundamental than you think.
“It has been proposed that our bodily fluids reproduce the inorganic environment that surrounded our single-cell ancestors in the primordial sea.
This was the view of the Canadian biochemist AB Macallum, who suggested that our closed circulatory system and kidneys work to preserve in our blood plasma the concentrations of ions that prevailed in the ancient ocean.”
That’s Harold McGee, writing in his classic work On Food and Cooking. McGee concludes by saying that “there is considerable appeal to the idea that, having developed in the seas, we brought our old home with us when we colonised the land”.
This is why a dip in the ocean is not just a swim, but an invigorating, enlivening experience, as we immerse ourselves in a bath of the fundamental minerals and elements of our universe.
“Go to the ocean to heal” is a quote ascribed to Hippocrates, and modern thalassotherapy techniques use seawater and seaweeds to deliver their potent combination of healing elements.
Anyone who has enjoyed a hot sea water and seaweed bath at some of the Victorian bath houses on the west coast will recall just how rejuvenated you feel after an hour’s floating in a sensuously gloopy big bath.
But let’s take the mineral and elemental wonders of seawater and bring them straight into our holiday kitchen. Everyone knows that the function of small boys on vacation is to catch crabs off the pier and bring them home.
When young Jack turns up with three or four fine specimens, don’t just chuck a handful of cheap salt into a pot of water to cook them. If you use proper, clean seawater, the crab will taste better than you could ever believe.
And, if Jack’s dad gets lucky with the rod, then there are two rules for cooking the shiny mackerel that hunter-gatherer Dad brings back: firstly, gut, wash and rinse them in seawater before bringing them home. At home, bring a pot of seawater to the boil, place the mackerel in the water and bring back to the boil, then turn off the heat and let the mackerel rest for about five minutes. Serve with wedges of lemon.
Minerally seawater bath
Now, put the seaweed back into a pot, add some stock and bring to the boil, then place your mackerel or other fish fillets on top, cover and steam them for a few minutes. When they are cooked, strain the sauce, whisk some butter into it, and serve it forth.
But it’s not just fish and shellfish that love a minerally seawater bath. Cook the month’s new potatoes in seawater after giving them a good scrub to get the soil off, and the flavour will be a revelation.
In some respects, gathering and then cooking with seawater is the ultimate foraging experience, taking us beyond the Paleo diet back to the Primordial diet, taking us back to the very elements that created us, and our health.
John McKenna is the author of Where to Eat and Stay on the Wild Atlantic Way. See guides.ie