Video: We explore the 'fifth taste' as Oonagh O'Dwyer takes us on a seaweed hunt

Seaweed, sea algae, call them what you will. Put them in a smoothie, pop them into the bath for silky smooth skin, sprinkle some into a healthy spelt bread, seaweeds are just really good for you. 

These foods grow wild on our shores — you can just wander down to the rocks and pick them and nibble on them.

Every summer in Limerick city a man with a pram sets up shop on the top of William Street and sells bags of periwinkles with a little pin to fish them out, and bags of dilisk for nibbling on. 

This seaweed was an early form of crisps in Ireland as the purple dilisk or dulse was dried out in the sun before being packaged up in little bags from the chipper for a few pence or maybe two euro now.

Seaweeds are tasty, maybe an acquired taste for some, they have a flavour profile called umami which the Japanese identify as the fifth taste after sweet, sour, salty and bitter. 

Umami is a deeper flavour, a savoury sensation that brings not just saltiness but complexity to otherwise plain tasting dishes. Some dried sugar kelp on your scrambled eggs elevates the dish to an amazing breakfast.

Dashi stock for miso soup is made from kelp simply soaked in water. Seaweeds contain trace elements and minerals not available in any other food sources. They are high in iodine and our kelps like laminara are so high that some even exceed WHO recommended dosages.

People who have been diagnosed with an under active thyroid often self medicate with seaweeds, but these are not to be messed with, too much iodine can send an underactive thyroid gland into the opposite spectrum. So how can we tell what’s what when we go wading along the shores?

Oonagh O’Dwyer is a Tipperary-born woman who has turned her passion for the shoreline and wild food into a thriving cottage business in the beautiful wilds of West Clare.

If you want to get hands-on and learn how to identify your seaweeds then let her take you on one of her Wild Food Walks where you will quickly become aware of the different species growing all around us.

Oonagh comes from a background of foraging and hunting, “My Dad used to sneak in to my room to wake me when it was still dark and we would go picking mushrooms and hunting rabbits”, she remembers.

A typical wild food walk begins at the wonderfully quirky Bar Trá seafood restaurant in Lahinch and takes visitors down to the shore where edible wild plants like rosehips, haws and watercress are identified along the way, passing the cottage where Nuala O’Faoláin spent many a summer writing.

We follow Oonagh along to the shore of Goilín beach where she harvests seaweeds, sustainably of course, by snipping them only with a scissors and never pulling away the fast that clings the plant to the rock. Oongh brings the plants to life by telling us their stories and properties.

“People are amazed by what they didn’t know they could eat, especially when it comes to the seaweed and wild plants. We have a taste deficit because we eat so few species of plants and wild food, reconnecting with nature and wild food brings out so many memories in people and they all have a food story to tell.”

Carrigeen has long been used as an ingredient in face creams across the globe, in fact the legendary Creme de la Mer (cream of the sea) touts sea algae as it’s prime active ingredient. Carrigeen is also used as a gelling agent to make things like panna cotta and a powerful cough syrup can be made by cooking up a hand-full of carrigeen in water for fifteen minutes, straining it and adding lemon and honey. This cough syrup loosens phlegm and aids in recovery from respiratory illnesses.

And if you’re looking for a boost to your complexion, then help yourself to some bladderwrack or fucus serratus, both look similar and grow profusely on the shoreline. Bladderwrack is identifiable from its inflated bladders or little balloons, squeeze them to release their gel and rub it on your skin for instant smoothness and a boost of minerals. Better still, throw a few big bunches into a bath of hot water and soak your bones in this for twenty minutes, you will feel amazing in both body and soul.

Sea spaghetti is easy to spot as it looks just like your favourite pasta, simmer it in a pan of boiling water for about four minutes and either mix it up with some cooked regular spaghetti or enjoy a carb-free feast from the sea, dressed with a wild garlic and yogurt sauce, topped with some chive flowers.

Sea lettuce is a vivid green and can be seen growing in sheets, this delicate seaweed makes a perfect wrap for sushi, or have it in an omelette. What we now call nori is the most well-known of seaweeds as we often chow down on it in sushi restaurants. In years gone by it was this, then known as laver, which sustained the starving people of the Irish coast during the famine years. Happily seaweeds are back on the menus of reputable restaurants and so we should enjoy them and go out and taste our abundance of wild foods.

Oonagh’s recipe for seaweed crisps

Heat oven to 150C

Dilisk works well here, as does sugar kelp

Tear or chop dried seaweed into crisp size pieces, sprinkle with a couple of drops of olive oil and maybe sesame seeds/ground up pumpkin seeds or chili flakes, what ever you fancy.

Cook for about 8mins, taking care not to burn them. they crisp up even more when you turn the oven off and leave for a few minutes.

Can also be crushed for adding to salads and soups.

Oonagh O’Dwyer, Lahinch Co Clare 087 6877890, a member of Slow Food Clare Member of Burren Ecotouism Network Tourism Partner of the Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark


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