Foraging dinner, fresh from an Irish rock pool
You can use seaweed in everything from scones to soup – and it’s almost back in season
Sea gardeners: Marie Power foraging seaweed with helpers Katie and Harry Earl near Tramore in Co Waterford. Photograph: Patrick Browne
You’ve heard of foraging for wild food in hedgerows, along country lanes or in forests, but how about plunging into rock pools in search of Irish seaweeds?
“People get great satisfaction from picking their own food and eating it. Children make great foragers, and I’ve seen even the fussiest eaters taking things out of my hand and nibbling them,” says Marie Power. She has spent most of her life on the Copper Coast, in Co Waterford. She ate seaweed as a child, and over the past 10 years or so she has been taking people on seaweed-foraging trips near her home.
“As children we were given boiled sleabhac as a tonic in the springtime, dilisk as a snack in summertime and carrageen as a cure for coughs,” she says. “We lost a lot of our food culture and traditions in the 1970s and 1980s, but in recent years Irish chefs have become very creative with traditional vegetables and seaweeds.”
People are amazed at how oblivious they were to all the edible seaweeds in our waters and thrilled to find out how convenient they are to cook with
Power, who calls herself the Sea Gardener, runs public forages as part of West Waterford Festival of Food and other events. She also brings American and European holidaymakers on foraging trips each summer. “People are usually amazed at how oblivious they were to all the edible seaweeds in our waters and thrilled to find out how convenient they are to cook with,” says Power.
Often, she brings seaweed scones and soups to share, and after the trips cooks some of the seaweed they have foraged. Her book, The Sea Garden: A Guide to Seaweed Cookery & Foraging, contains plenty of seaweed recipes.
Darach Ó Murchú leads day-long seaweed-foraging trips on the Dingle Peninsula, in Co Kerry. He teaches his groups how to identify and harvest different types of seaweed for use in cookery and cosmetics and as a soil fertiliser. He also runs half-day sea forages in the summer months for visitors to the region.
“Foraging is such a holistic thing to do: you’re exercising and connecting with nature in the outdoors, which does your psyche and your emotions the world of good,” he says. But you’ve got to be kitted out. “I suggest people wear lots of layers, a windproof jacket, a hat and gloves. You can go out in sandals in the summertime, or rubber boots, old runners or hiking boots at other times of the year. It all depends on what you’re used to, but it’s important to remember that it’s easy to slip in the rock pools.”
Between 90 and 60 minutes before low tide is the ideal time to go out, as foragers will have time to look for the different seaweeds in the upper, middle and lower tidal zones and to return to shore as the tide turns.
You can get so engrossed that you forget to look at the tide. You should follow it out, and as soon as it turns you should be turning in too
“You can get so engrossed, because it’s such a wonderland, that you forget to look at the tide. You should follow the tide out, and as soon as it turns you should be turning in too – without needing to collect too much on your way back to shore,” Ó Murchú says.
Paying attention to nature is a key to staying safe. “I tell people to keep their eyes and ears open when they are foraging, as they will hear the sounds of the ocean gurgling. People say never to go down to the shore alone and never to turn your back on the sea, but if it’s a supercalm day, and you’re not close to the water’s edge, you can turn your back on the sea. There’s no point in going foraging on a stormy day anyway.”
Seaweed should be cut with scissors and never pulled from their roots, according to Ó Murchú, who adds that foragers should always leave enough behind for the limpets, periwinkles and small fish that rely on it, as well as leaving enough for the plant to regenerate. “I usually suggest that people take a small amount from each plant in a patch of seaweed. For the smaller seaweeds you can just give them a bit of a haircut.”
Ó Murchú also suggests that foragers find their own spots along the coastline, so that no one spot is overused. Just make sure the one you choose isn’t near waste-water pipes flowing into the sea.
He believes that if foraging, whether in the sea or on land, becomes more popular, people will need to campaign for more spaces for sustainable foraging. “Wild spaces around Ireland are getting squeezed, and people are expecting more out of them. For foraging to be sustainable we need to get real wild land back.”
Seaweed-foraging workshops are held in Cos Clare, Cork, Kerry, Sligo and Waterford; you can find out more at atlanticirishseaweed.com, theseagardener.ie, wildkitchen.ie, irishseaweedkitchen.ie and atlanticseakayaking.com; see also Extreme Greens: Understanding Seaweeds, by Sally McKenna, and Irish Seaweed Kitchen by Prannie Rhatigan
The most popular seaweeds to forage
More than 600 types of seaweed grow in Irish coastal waters. Seaweeds grow on rocky shoreline along the splash zone, in the upper, middle and lower tidal zones, and subtidally. You can forage them, generally speaking, between March and October. The best time to start is about 90 minutes before low tide, and to finish just as the tide turns. You should cut seaweed with scissors, not pull it from its roots, and take no more than a third of what you find.
The five most popular seaweeds foraged in Ireland are dilisk, carrageen, kelp, sea spaghetti and sleabhac.
Dilisk Also known as dulse, this reddish seaweed grows in the mid and lower tidal zones. It can be eaten raw or used in stews and soups.
Carrageen Also known as Irish moss, this reddish seaweed grows in the mid to lower tidal area. It was traditionally used to thicken soups, set jellies and ease coughs.
Kelp This strong brown seaweed can only be foraged at a very low tide, so check the tide tables. Rich in protein, it is used to flavour stocks and casseroles. It is also popular for seaweed baths.
Sea spaghetti Found on the lower shore, subtidally or in rock pools, this brown seaweed has a slightly nutty flavour. It is used in salads or with marinated or roasted vegetables.
Sleabhac This reddish Irish seaweed, known in other parts of the world as laver and nori, grows in the mid tidal zone. It is popular in stews and soups.