Seaweed: A nutritious foodstuff that needs protecting

[UK] Sharon Ní Chonchúir says seaweed is one of the most nutritious foodstuffs on the planet and we need to protect this important natural resource.

Few people live as close to the sea as I do. My house is on a cliff at the north-western edge of the Dingle Peninsula, where it bears the full brunt of the Atlantic Ocean.

Some of my neighbours still practice traditional ways and I occasionally see them collecting seaweed from the shoreline. As someone who is interested in food and has a growing curiosity about foraging, I used to long to join them.

But I was fearful. What if I picked the wrong kind of seaweed? What if I harvested from a place that was polluted? I was terrified of accidentally poisoning myself in my ignorance.

That was until I attended a seaweed foraging workshop with Darach Ó Murchú, an experienced guide to the outdoors who runs foraging and cookery workshops in West Kerry. Darach led a group of 11 people along the shoreline at low tide and showed us how to identify and sustainably harvest some of the different types of edible seaweed to be found in Ireland.

Pink dillisk, springy carrageen, spicy pepper dulse, kelp, sea spaghetti, sea lettuce and nori — we gathered them all and brought them inland to cook. As we cooked, we were told how to use seaweed to fertilise the soil, how to dry and store it for use over the winter, and finally, we sat down to a feast of foods containing seaweeds.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in seaweed. The popularity of books such as Irish Seaweed Kitchen by Prannie Rhatigan and Extreme Greens by Sally McKenna are proof positive of this.

“There’s been a phenomenal growth in interest from when I published my book in 2009,” says Prannie, who is writing another book about restaurants along the Wild Atlantic Way that use seaweed in their menus. “People are discovering that seaweed has so much going for it from a health point of view.”

In many ways, we’re being reintroduced to the age-old knowledge of our ancestors. For generations, Irish coastal dwellers combed the seashore for edible seaweeds. The annals of the monks tell of harvesting dillisk on Skellig Michael and of Saint Brendan carrying seaweed on his long voyages, confident that its nutritional properties would protect him from the likes of scurvy.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in seaweed. The popularity of books such as Irish Seaweed Kitchen by Prannie Rhatigan and Extreme Greens by Sally McKenna are proof positive of this.

Some of our haul

 

“There’s been a phenomenal growth in interest from when I published my book in 2009,” says Prannie, who is writing another book about restaurants along the Wild Atlantic Way that use seaweed in their menus. “People are discovering that seaweed has so much going for it from a health point of view.”

In many ways, we’re being reintroduced to the age-old knowledge of our ancestors. For generations, Irish coastal dwellers combed the seashore for edible seaweeds. The annals of the monks tell of harvesting dillisk on Skellig Michael and of Saint Brendan carrying seaweed on his long voyages, confident that its nutritional properties would protect him from the likes of scurvy.

Seaweeds weren’t just for eating either. Aran islanders turned the sand and stone of their island home into fertile soil using seaweed as fertiliser. Generations of children will recall having to endure concoctions of carrageen moss to cure colds and flus. And places like Ballybunion still offer seaweed baths to nourish the hair and skin.

We might have lost this knowledge were it not for people like Darach, who started learning about seaweed from his mother in Kerry, and Prannie, who learned from her father in Sligo. By the 1970s, Prannie’s family were among the few still harvesting seaweed from the shore. “I think folk memory had come to associate it with extreme poverty,” she says.

Not quite summery light but still beautiful #dingledays

This mentality is changing as we gradually begin to understand the value of what we have along our 3,500 miles of shoreline. “Seaweed is the only food known to contain all the vitamins, minerals and trace elements that humans need,” says Darach. “It even contains vitamin B12, which is otherwise only found in animal products.” Some seaweed species are 10 times richer in calcium than cow’s milk, have twice as much vitamin C as oranges and up to 50 times more iron than spinach. Combined with their anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties this makes them a true super food.

“It’s the most nutritious form of plant food on the planet,” says Prannie. “It has everything a food can have, bar the calories!” Those of us who are interested in food and foraging aren’t the only ones discovering the value of seaweed. The Irish shoreline has commercial value too. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, the harvesting of seaweed for food is worth more than €4,5bn a year worldwide. There’s even more money to be made when you consider the other applications such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, animal feed and fertiliser.

Not quite summery light but still beautiful #dingledays

Here in Ireland, communities that have traditionally harvested seaweed are beginning to feel threatened by large companies who are interested in seaweed as a commercial commodity. In Mayo, the Clew Bay Seaweed Association was formed when a seaweed processing company called BioAtlantis applied for extensive and exclusive harvesting rights in Clew Bay last year.

“We’re completely opposed to this,” says John Lambe, chairman of the association. “It’s not that we’re directing our protest at any particular company or organisation. It’s the principle involved. There are small farmers and fishermen in this area for whom seaweed harvesting has been a substantial part of their livelihoods for generations. They are very upset at the idea that they won’t be allowed to harvest anymore without the permission of these large companies.” At the moment, the licence application is being considered by the Department of the Environment and legal advice is being sought from the attorney general with regard to the rights of individual harvesters.

 

This situation is replicated all along the western coastline, according to John Lambe. “It’s not just Clew Bay,” he says. “Communities from Donegal to Clare are under threat because this entire resource could be sold to private companies at the expense of local communities.” Prannie Rhatigan is hopeful of a positive outcome to this situation. “I would like to see these big companies work with local harvesters,” she says. “By combining their expertise, they could make the most of this precious resource and harvest it sustainably.”

Seaweed was vital to our survival in the past. In recent years, we have begun to rediscover just how delicious and nutritious it can be to eat. But if it’s to survive as a natural resource, it needs to be managed carefully and sustainably, by large-scale companies as well as individuals.

 

“People need to be shown how to harvest,” says Prannie. “Just as you would pick a few leaves off a parsley plant instead of pulling out the whole stalk, so too should you take little nips off seaweed using a scissors or a sharp knife.

“We only need very small amounts of a wide variety of different seaweeds to get the full health benefits so a little nip is all you need anyway. Seaweed is a precious commodity and it’s more precious it’s going to get. Let’s make the most of it while also protecting it for the future.”

That’s what I hope to do. Thanks to what I’ve now learned about seaweeds, my eyes have been opened to a whole new world on our seashore.

 

Photo: Sharon Ní Chonchúir showing the seaweed on rocks near her shoreside home near Dingle

View original article at: Seaweed: A nutritious foodstuff that needs protecting

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