Algae has such a bad reputation. The blue-green stuff formed by bacteria in lakes and rivers can be very toxic. So it was disconcerting to learn that seaweed – which crops up more and more on fancy menus – is also an algae. Worrying because, as someone who enjoys the all-you-can-eat buffet that is a forage in the countryside, I thought I would do the same on the Yorkshire coast.
And as I stood looking at some reddish purple seaweed festooning the sides of a rock pool at Staithes I wondered if it was safe to eat.
Thankfully, I was reassured by a seaweed cookbook I had recently acquired that marine algae is non-toxic with the exception of one particular family. Therefore, like foraging for edible fungi, you must get clued-up on seaweed varieties before deciding to eat one.
Most people first encounter edible seaweed in Chinese restaurants or in sushi bars, where it is often used as a garnish.
In Wales, of course, virtually the national dish is laverbread – that’s laver seaweed boiled and pureed before being rolled in oatmeal and fried.
I recently came across small packets of dried dulse seaweed in a supermarket, which according to the packet is also known as bacon of the sea. I understand the comparison because it
tastes a bit like smoky bacon crisps.
It can be used as a seasoning in risotto and pasta sauces, when rehydrated makes a tasty accompaniment to any fish dish, and seems particularly popular in omelettes.
The supermarket sources its dulse from Connemara on Ireland’s west coast, where it is harvested at low tide, washed and then air-dried for 12 hours. But it is pretty expensive stuff for a small quantity. Just five grams costs £2.99 and works out at almost £60 for 100 grams. Fortunately, it is available for free on the Yorkshire coast and it is at its very best when gathered in late summer and autumn.
I think it is an acquired taste, however. The ruby-coloured dulse that I found in a rock pool at the very edge of the low tide at Staithes initially had a strong anchovy-like flavour but began to be bit too reminiscent of Marmite for my liking. On the love-it-or-loath-it argument over the spread, I am definitely on the latter side.
A tastier variety I gathered at Staithes was sea lettuce, and I would not argue with my seaweed cookbook’s description of it looking like “pea shoots, new beech leaves, lime zest and mown grass”. It was salty with a hint of chicory-like bitterness, but made a vibrant addition to a plate of sea bass.
Apparently sea lettuce is a great replacement for basil in a pesto sauce for fish dishes.
The ubiquitous bladderwrack has those eponymous bubbles on its fronds and varies between light olive and dark brown according to age. When young and fresh it makes a tasty addition to a seafood salad.
But be warned. Foraging for seaweed is dangerous on rocks which are rendered slippery and slimy at low tide.