Seaweed rich in nourishment and free, for now

Marie Power, aka The Sea Gardener, foraging on Garrarus beach near Tramore, CoWaterford. Picture: Patrick Browne

Green weed carpets the beaches this year, as it has every year since the early 2000s.

I remember when it wasn’t there and the sand banks in the bay lay bare beneath the sky, all bright and shining when the sun shone.

In parts of the world, Ulva lactua (sea lettuce), is enthusiastically harvested, and no wonder; it delivers 27% protein, 50% of which is sugar and starch, with under 1% fat. The rest is a compendium package of amino acids including one normally lacking in vegetarian diets. Added to this, are many vitamins and, also, dietary fibre. Sea lettuce is big in the Japanese islands of Okinawa and in Crete. Presumably, however, it is not collected where nutrient runoffs from the land, or elsewhere, accelerates its growth.

Seaweed has recently become more than just flavour of the week. Some varieties are here to stay as a supplement in our relatively conservative cuisine. They are a rich source of minerals, vitamins, trace elements and protein —in some seaweeds protein is almost 50% by mass. Gastronomically prepared, many are not only palatable, but add a salty frisson to bland dishes, including the plainest boiled rice.

Irish, Welsh, and Scottish mammys knew about seaweed delights. Each nation has its seaweed special — carrageen, laver, and dulse. In my childhood, we regularly ate carrageen moss as a dessert. The blancmange-like servings were improved by a lacing of sugar and a tincture of lemon or vanilla. That was how my mother prepared it.

We had Irish moss (aka carrageen) once a week in summer, although the garden supplied apples, pears, goosegogs, currants red and black, raspberries and strawberries and all that those old-fashioned walled gardens — those sun-trap, sheltered gardens — provided from their rich loam, laid down over perhaps 200 years.

Carrageen contains almost 10% protein, plus iodine, sulphur and all sorts of arcane elements, good for body and soul. It is no wonder those who eat it (or ‘ate’ it), the coastal people, were such fine figures of men and women. Seaweeds would have helped some coastal dwellers survive the Famine after their boats had been sold to buy corn or whatever was available after the potatoes failed.

I read that laver (from which the Welsh make laver bread, which is not a bread but a pureé, similar in appearance to tapenade) delivers 35g of calories per 100g consumed. It contains zero cholesterol and 0.5g sugar. It’s got to be good! Laver on toast is, apparently, a traditional Welsh delight.

As a teenage dropout from Irish medical school, I got a casual job selling popular salty dulse seaweed in paper screws to corner shops in Glasgow. So poor a salesman was I, that for the three days the job lasted, I largely survived on my stock.

Ireland has a wealth of seaweed to offer the world, growing in well-washed water, beaten by Atlantic swells. As large companies eye the commercial potential, the vexed question becomes a heritage issue. Coastal dwellers who have harvested it from time immemorial fear that the resource may be licensed to large companies and that they will not be allowed to harvest it without obtaining their permission.

Our heron sometimes comes to the garden with green seaweed on its feet, a welcome sign that it is feeding itself. The seaweed is incidental, of course; it eats fish, frogs, rodents, almost anything. Re herons’ dietary and other habits, I was interested to read traditional tales in Niall Mac Coitir’s new book Ireland’s Birds, Myths, Legends and Folklore.

There is hardly a sentence in Mr Mac Coitir’s book that doesn’t relate a fascinating belief, story or custom about our wild and domestic birdlife. Its influence on Irish art, poetry, music and place names is catalogued in astounding detail; the source references run to 16 pages, the bibliography to 6, the index to 600 items. Never before was such a comprehensive compendium complied!

For the scholar of history and myth, this book is a treasure trove. For the birder, it will be full of interest because myths and folklore. The book, published by Gill & Macmillan at €24.99 hardback, €19.99 paperback, is beautifully presented, illustrated with colour plates and monochrome etchings.

I am now reading through it, as well as enjoying Eric Dempsey’s birder memoir, Don’t Die in Autumn (also by Gill & Macmillan) which I mentioned last week.


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