Growing up by the sea in the southwest of England, I guess I was always aware of the “bounty of the sea”.
Before I go on, I should say we were always also aware of the cost of harvesting that bounty. The lifeboat maroons to summons the crew, and to indicate when they had put to sea, were very much part of local life. Displayed in the local lifeboat house, the roll of honour and list of rescues made, served as a further reminder. In school assemblies we would sing the hymn, “Eternal Father Strong to Save”, in knowledge that there were sons and daughters of fishermen, merchant mariners and Royal Navy crews amongst us.
Maroons were rockets that were fired into the sky that exploded with a large bang and a puff of coloured smoke. This was a time when many people still did not have a phone line in their home, and mobile phones, pagers and smart watches had barely made it into the realms of science fiction. The maroons were the means of calling members of the lifeboat crew to action. At night they may have woken many from their sleep but, in this community still largely focused around the sea, it was understood that living with the maroons was an obligation that came with being part of that community. No doubt on a stormy winter’s night many will have crossed themselves or muttered a hasty prayer for the lifeboat crew, before turning over and going back to sleep. Meanwhile those volunteers were heading to sea and whatever perils that would bring.
At that time though, I’d not particularly given thought to seaweed. As a young child it was something found in rock pools along with blennies, little starfish, urchins, sea anemones, crabs and a plethora of other marine organisms. I probably at some point took some seaweed home to serve as a weather prognosticator. Not climbing down or walking beneath unstable cliffs became second nature. Knowing whether the tide was coming in or out and the dangers of becoming cut off by the sea became instinctive.
The obligatory health warning bit. Before exploring any coastline make sure you know the state of the tide, and whether there is any possibility of being trapped by rising tides. Also, the surface you are walking on; I used to walk for miles out into Morecambe Bay. This was notorious for quicksands. mudpools and fast rising tides which regularly led to the loss of life. If you are not sure where it is safe to venture, ask someone who knows. Ensure you can communicate to call for help if you require it, and never leave it too late to make that call. If they know assistance may be required, lifeboat crews and shore-based coastguards will always try to rescue someone in need; but do you really want that person to be you?
So, moving on, one thing I never considered, was eating seaweed. As I grew older my horizons widened, and the world shrank. One day in Pembrokeshire I tried laver bread, then I discovered sushi with its seaweed wrapping and, to this day, I love crispy fried seaweed.
Last Boxing Day evening, along with red wine, the person we were visiting was handing out seaweed crackers. Shortly after I came across a then newly published book called, simply and to the point, ‘Seaweed’. The subtitle or strapline pretty much tells you exactly what the book is: ‘A Collection of Simple and Delicious Recipes from an Ocean of Food’.
So, it’s a recipe book? Well, yes it is, but it is an exceedingly well thought out recipe book. Of all the thousands of types of sea vegetables and weeds, it concentrates on just a few easily recognised species each of which is beautifully illustrated. There are notes on the nutritional benefits of seaweed, and on its preservation and storage. The latter ranges from pickling, through brining to drying.
The value of seaweed in the diet is something that was recognised in times past. There are records of these species being harvested in countries all around the North Atlantic for centuries, if not millennia. This book informs us that; “This super food is a low-calorie source of protein and fibre; is richer in trace minerals and vitamins than kale; and contains all kinds of goodness, including vitamin C, iodine and antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.”
Besides the illustrations there are photographs of seaweed and the sea. What makes this book stand out for me however, was the superb photographs of each completed dish – stunning. If the focus of the book is feasting, then this book is also a total visual feast.
It contains a brief directory seaweed suppliers towards the back of the book. I am able to purchase both dried and vacuum-packed seaweed in local stores. The book has advice on when, and from what type of location, to forage your own should you so wish. Before you do so, it is worth checking whether there are any restrictions on harvesting seaweed in your area. The Guardian, in an article in 2012, also advises that permission should be sought from whoever owns the beach. One day in the UK we may even get all the marine conservation zones that are so desperately needed, and which will limit where seaweed can be collected.
The real joy to be gained from this book comes from the recipes and cooking them for yourself. They are not written out in a simple step by step learn to cook format, but are easy enough to follow if you’ve done a little cooking before. I’ve always liked foods that occur together or in the same season. Somehow the cod and kelp feel right together. Just remember that the kelp needed soaking for at least an hour first, if you want to serve it on time!
Just as I enjoy the process of wine making as much as, if not more than, drinking it; so you can discover the pleasure of making your own seaweed based sauces instead of visiting the ‘Asian’ section of the supermarket.
I’ve never really enjoyed laver bread, so the next recipe from this book that I intend to try is Laver Falafel to see if that is more enjoyable. There is also a recipe for seaweed infused gin…
The book was originally published in Norwegian in 2016 and was created by four people of Nordic origin or association: Claudia Seifert, Zoe Christiansen, Lisa Westgaard & Hanne Martinsen. This book combines together their expertise in food, nutrition, style and design; into something that is a joy to own and a pleasure to browse even if you never cook from it.
First published in English in 2017 by Grub Street Publishing, the book runs to 192 pages and is available in hardback. ISBN: 9781910690512.
If you enjoy cooking seafood, perhaps this October you could host a fish supper to raise funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. They are charity and rely on fund raising to provide the lifeboats and train the volunteer crews who help protect those who go to sea to catch the fish. This is how you can help.