It’s already 15 days into 2018 and well over a year has passed since I posted anything here. Inspired by a comment a friend made in my reply about a Nigel Slater recipe in the Guardian, I thought I would start my resolution to actually write more about seaplants & seaweed. What triggered this was Nigel’s recipe for dulse butter, in the ingredients he simply says “20g of dulse or other seaweed”. Or other seaweed? Might as well say “parsley or other herb”. This is not a rant article, just going to try and highlight what different flavours our edible seashore can provide.
In one of my first blog posts I went through what, what are commonly called, seaweeds are. As alluded to they are primary producers meaning that they can use, in this case, sun light as their source of energy, through the process of photosynthesis. There are some organisms that use chemosyntheis but we’re not going there today. All well and good so far, but the similarity stops there. Broadly seaweeds are split into three groups: the browns, greens and reds or Phaeophycae, Chlorophycae and Rhodophycae. The phaeophytes belong in the kingdom Chromista where as the chlorophytes and rhodophytes broadly fall within the kingdom Plantae or the plant kingdom (some taxonomists have put the Rhodophytes as a sub-kingdom or supra-phyla but they still seem to share a common ancestor with plants). What this means is what we call red and green seaweeds are as closely related (or share as much of a common ancestor) with brown seaweeds as we and other animals are related to red and green seaweeds. That is a huge difference. This is really quite exciting as it means our seashores and inshore waters have a highly diverse group of primary producer, photosynthesising organisms that provide a food source and habitat for a number of herbivorous animals (and other organisms…). The other result of this diversity is that they all produce different compounds, also known as secondary metabolites, which have other functions such as protection against grazers, secondary light capturing pigments, photo protection and protection against drying out when the tide is out. These compounds contribute to the distinct flavours of each species. For example, the different terpenoids and specifically flavinoids found in pepper dulse help give it a very distinctive peppery garlic butter kind of flavour. Different terpenoids and flavinoids are found in tea, but we know tea has a different flavour to dulse and different teas have different flavours!
Each species has different composition in terms of proteins, sugars, storage compounds and fats, again contributing to different flavours, so the iron and higher protein content in dulse for example helps give it a bit more of a meat (or bacon) flavour when grilled or fried. Sloke or laver also has a high protein content but at different ratios so has a different flavour compared to dulse when dried or fried (still a bit meaty when fried but a far more delicate, slightly sweeter flavour).
The common flavour description that is used across all the seaweeds is umami, that sixth taste that was identified in Japanese cuisine. Umami, best described as a more-ish type flavour, is caused by glutamates and related compounds, the most familiar being mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) found in Pringles, though also found in cheese, mushrooms and tomatoes. Now seaweeds have different glutamates and different quantities. These along with the other secondary compounds means that different seaweeds can highlight or help bring out different flavours. The meaty edge of dulse means it works really well with cheese, eggs and tomatoes. So in butter, it will certainly add a meaty edge and sea bacon taste (well it can). But use sloke, well it is potentially a sweeter edge in butter and used with scallops brings out a sweet flavour with nutty edge and highlights the richness and depth that the butter enhances of the scallop. Well that is my opinion.
What about a brown seaweed like tangle (aka kombu or oarweed)? It has a distinctive flavour, a tang from the iodine, the glutamates, the mannitol and phlorotannins. How would this work in butter? Well I have not tried so I cannot say, but I use it instead of salt in my pizza dough for the delicate moreish flavour it adds. I think the tangle can have a bit of brassica flavour and in soups (which the Chinese use its relation, Laminaria japonica for), it does bring quite a flavour of the sea, though not as fishy as dried dulse can add. The mannitol can add a sweetness, though sometimes this is overpowered.
What about some of the greens? Well sea lettuce I find a kind of starchy bitterness, which could be caused by starch and ulvan being the storage compounds and that it is heavily influenced by the amount of nitrate in the environment, so can have sometimes quite a high nitrogen content. When dried it can be citrus sweet, nice flavouring with fish and actually very nice with ice cream. A true crunchy taste of the sea with an incredibly more-ish edge to it is velvet horn, can be dried and adds something unique to salads, I think working well with sorrel.
Then again, taste is all subjective, the only way to discover the different flavours is to try them for yourselves. If you don’t want to buy any seaweed flakes such as from the Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company, Seaweed & Co. or closer to Scotland Mara Seaweed and New Wave Foods, try grinding up some sushi nori and sprinkling that in with food.
Even better, why not get out to a seashore and try some yourself, everyone is always welcome to join me on Easdale or book your own forager and get exploring the edible seashore this year.