You are at a pub in Magalluf playing a game in the pub quiz league and the question is: “What percentage of the British people regularly eat seaweed?”
This isn’t an easy one to answer and none of the team has any idea. So a process of analysis and elimination begins. No one on the team has ever tried seaweed — or wanted to — and no one has a relative or friend that eats it.
Most of the team have seen it in supermarkets: little packets of black crinkly stuff with a big price tag. They have never bought one because they wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Someone remembers seeing seaweed on a beach somewhere on the west coast of Scotland and says it was horrible: squelchy and slippery, like walking on bubble wrap that had been drizzled with oil.
It soon begins to look as if very few British people ever eat seaweed except for a minority who have had it at Japanese restaurants, where small amounts are included in noodles dishes.
The team reckon that not even 10 per cent of the population eat seaweed regularly, so they end up lowering that figure and settle for 8 per cent.
Were they anywhere near the correct answer? Not really, because the fact is that some 98 per cent of the population eat seaweed every day of the year — but they don’t even know it. Most of us consume various kinds of seaweed because they go into baked foods, cheeses, yoghurt, ice cream, mayonnaise, peanut butter, luncheon meats and other processed foods, as well as all kinds of medicines.
Some seaweeds are an important source of alginates, vegetable gelatines, that are used to thicken processed soups, to emulsify ice cream and to set jellies. Alginates can also be made into a thin durable film that is used as edible sausage skins. It’s actually quite difficult to escape from the range of seaweed uses in today’s food industry.
But in recent years more and more people are eating seaweed as one of the main ingredients in a dish — and they are thoroughly enjoying it. Some vegetarians like seaweed because every variety is packed with minerals and vitamins, many of which are difficult to get from other sources — one of the advantages of having seaweed in so many processed foods.
Seaweed is simply a vegetable that grows underwater. Instead of seeds it has spore and it even has its seasons, so gatherers must be somewhat familiar with marine biology to know about harvesting times. You will find an interesting variety of dried seaweeds at most good health food shops, and the supermarkets of El Corte Inglés also have a good selection. Prices vary, but seaweed is always rather expensive.
However, a small amount goes a long way because no one eats big plates of it. At best, small portions are added to dishes to provide extra nourishment as well as contrasts of textures and tastes — and sometimes dramatic splashes of black.
There was a time when Britons living in coastal areas ate large amounts of seaweeds such as dulse, laver and kelp. Seaweed was a major natural dietary supplement and people were well aware of its significant mineral content.
Seaweed had another attraction that helped to make it popular: it could be collected on beaches and on craggy shores for free. And it was a small cottage industry for some people in Ireland, Wales and Scotland: they gathered seaweed and sold it on to shops.
At one time the harvesting of seaweed was a thriving business. In southwest Wales, where laver is still considered a delicacy, seaweed was sold in shops to those who couldn’t be bothered, or weren’t able, to go out and collect it themselves.
Gatherers in the 19th century had sheds on beaches where their seaweed harvests could be stored. They were simple triangular huts about six feet at their highest point, with wooden beams serving as walls and a thick roof made of reeds.
There were dozens of these primitive huts in some areas but as prosperity slowly arrived the gatherers had other means of making a living and the huts fell into disuse and started to disappear.
By the 1990s there was only one left and it was a 19th century hut overlooking the beach at Freshwater West, on land owned by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority. In January of 1999 the authority officially listed it as being a historical monument to be conserved in its original form, a reminder of a bygone age when local seaweed harvesting was an important cottage industry.
The hut was restored, the roof being repaired with reeds from a nearby marsh. The wooden beams that form the walls were first steeped in sea water to give them an old age look.Laver, of the same family as the Japanese nori that is used for sushi, grows in abundance on the Gower coast of south Wales and it is still eaten by people in that area. It is also found in parts of Ireland and Scotland as well as Brittany, on the northwest coast of France.
Like many other seaweeds, laver has one big disadvantage: unless it is very young it has to be boiled for 3-5 hours and sometimes for as many as 12. For that reason the Welsh sell it precooked: reduced to a thick paste, as if it were puréed spinach. In that state it is known as laverbread and it is ready for use.
A favourite Welsh way of using laverbread is to mix it with enough fine oatmeal to give it a firm consistency. It is then shaped into little flat cakes that are fried in bacon fat and served for breakfast with bacon and eggs. These little patties can also be part of a mixed grill.
One of the beauties of little patties made with laverbread is that they never break — the gelatine in the laver nicely binds the ingredients.
The Welsh also make an easy-peasy sauce with laverbread which they serve with roast lamb. Some 250 grs of laverbread are heated with the grated peel and juice of an orange, seasoning it to taste with a little lemon juice, salt and pepper. This sauce, which is of a deep green colour, is also served with fish and shellfish.
Although laver tastes of the sea, it is not at all fishy and isn’t even as salty as you would expect. It has a very slight taste of oysters and in some parts of the country it is known as oyster-green.
Laverbread travels wall and some fishmongers in England sell it. A few shops in Cardiff mail it to customers all over the country.
Apart from Japanese restaurants, which use seaweed sparingly, you will find very little seaweed on menus in Palma. However, I don’t go to up-market restaurants or places with Michelin stars, so perhaps they have a use for seaweed.
Mainland restaurants run by creative cooks do fusion-like food with seaweed and a cook called Ángel León specialises in fish, has his own state-of-the-art fishing boat — and even dons a wetsuit and goes diving for a variety of seaweeds for his restaurant.
On the few occasions when I have used seaweed it has been in Japanese noodles or rice dishes in which a small amount is added at some stage during the stir-fry. But I once had a close look at what a top-rate creative cook can do with seaweed.
This was about 15 years ago when Jacinto del Valle, whom I wrote about frequently when he was doing some of the island’s best cooking at the Porto Pi Restaurant, was running the kitchen at the Melia de Mar Hotel in Illetas.
The Sol-Meliá luxury were doing a week of tasting menus featuring seaweed dishes and it was Jacinto who designed them. The main tasting menu consisted of seven nibbles, two fish dishes, one meat and two desserts — with every item containing seaweed.
When talented creative cooks use seaweed, it’s not a case of turning it into little patties and serving them with bacon and eggs. Instead they do imaginative creations in which the seaweed complements the other ingredients.
One of Jacinto’s appetiser consisted of a piece of brik pastry stuffed with finely chopped brie, covered with a sheet of nori, rolled up and deep-fried. It was served on an endive leaf in a martini glass on a bed of chopped tomatoes and chives. And that was just a nibble.
A starter was a thick cauliflower purée serve with thin slices of tender cooked octopus, nori, a seaweed called marine spaghetti, and finished off with caramelised sweet paprika.
That’s where top creative cooks beat ordinary ones like you and me: we would never have thought of doing caramelised sweet paprika.
A monkfish carpaccio was served with a seaweed vinaigrette done with balsamic vinegar, pink peppercorns, pinenuts, currants and chives. The monkfish was wrapped in sheets of nori, so each slice had a black rim, giving the dish a strong visual impact.
Another dish was in the complex haute cuisine style that shouldn’t be tried at home. A large shelled gamba and a thin spear of green asparagus were wrapped in uncooked Chinese rice noodles and tied into a bundle with strips of nori.When this packet was deep fried, the rice noodle immediately puffed up into an entangled prison-like cage for the asparagus and the gamba. It was served atop a creamy sauce made with wakame seaweed and leeks.
I had previously never come across a meat course in which seaweed was used — and I’ve never seen one since. It was a vacuum-packed piece of suckling pig that was cooked at 65C for 12 hours.This makes it very tender, and conserves every drop of juice, so it is also extremely tasty.The suckling pig was served atop a potato purée made with kombu seaweed, with a curry-flavoured pumpkin purée on the side.The suckling pig was sprinkled with dried orange powder.
The Chinese and the Japanese have been eating seaweed for thousands of years but it is still a relative newcomer in most of the western world. However, we should be eating it from time to time because it is absolutely bursting with minerals.
Seaweed is a vegetable that absorbs nutrients from seawater, which is basically a solution of all the minerals that are essential or human life. That means all seaweeds are a powerhouse of minerals as well as a good source of vitamin A and some of the vitamin B complex.
Some people are put off cooking seaweed at home because they don’t know how to handle the varieties they see in some supermarkets and health food shops. But there’s nothing to it.
In most cases the seaweeds are soaked before use, which increases their volume enormously, and they are then cooked. Many of them are done in minutes, although there are some that take a couple of hours. I always avoid those with long cooking times.
In a future article (when Christmas and the New Year have passed) I’ll give some guidelines on the seaweed varieties available here.
Most of them are Japanese but many now come from Spanish coastlines.As they have been dried they keep well in a packet once it has been opened, which makes them a good stand-by for impromptu meals.
Jacinto del Valle was looking for premises for a new restaurant in Palma when the coronavirus came along and caused havoc in many people’s lives. It made Jacinto put his restaurant plans on hold until everything returns to normal. In the meantime he’s involved in giving cooking lessons in Santa María and he also cooks meals at people’s homes.
Clients tell him what they want to eat and what they want to pay.
Jacinto suggests a series of dishes and the menu is worked out and the price agreed. He buys all the ingredients and turns up with an assistant to cook and serve the meal. Afterwards they clean up so that you’d never know a meal had been cooked there. He can be contacted at: 622-434097.