There’s food all around us, as Iain Mckellar, truck-driver-turned-seaweed-harvester discovered when he realised he was sitting on treasure at his Isle of Bute home. We got in touch with him to ask why he thinks this is the food of the future, and how to cook it…
Being an island nation, you’d think we’d have clocked on to the value of sea vegetables a lot sooner. After all we’re surrounded by a coastline covered in 640 different kinds of seaweed, all of it edible, and each with its own season, texture and flavour.
Iain Mckellar is one of the country’s leading seaweed foragers, but he only stumbled into collecting it as a food ingredient by accident. He’s been selling the sea vegetables he hand harvests from the coast of the Isle of Bute where he lives from around 2007, and tells us how he got started and what seaweed is good for.
How did you become a seaweed forager?
Years and years ago I was off work after an operation for two and half months. I decided I needed a project to keep me busy and that I’d build a website as a challenge. I looked out of my window for inspiration about what to make the site about, and saw the shore was covered with seaweed, so I decided I’d do it about that. I came across a site in Ireland selling it for bathing and making money and then people began to ask me if you could eat it. At the same time redundancies came up with work, so I thought ‘What the hell? Let’s go for it!’ I got approval to collect from the shoreline from Scottish Nature, the Crown Estate, the Food Standards Agency and others, and I’ve been collecting and selling seaweed ever since.
How do you collect it?
I go out to the shore once or twice a week and collect seaweed mostly to order. Because of the tides you’re limited to a window of only a couple of hours. The seaweed grows on rocks and I go out with a penknife and a basket. There’s no special tools – sometimes, I’ll use the sharp edge of a shell to cut the seaweed away. In winter, the low tides tend to fall in darkness, so you’ll find me out with a torch, though I tend to stick to seaweed on the shore rather than wading out to collect subtidal seaweeds.
Are all seaweeds edible?
All of them are edible, but not all are palatable. Seaweeds are tidal. Subtidal seaweeds grow in the winter and in the warmer months deteriorate before coming back at the end of the summer every year. They’re at their best now – with no flaws and as smooth as a baby’s bottom.
How sustainable is it to harvest?
As it’s such a niche market it’s impossible to take too much of it! There’s between three and five kilos of seaweed growing every square metre, and I sell it in 100g packs. Even the top restaurants don’t buy a kilo at a time! Some plants are up to twenty years old, though most seaweeds have a one or two year circle of life. It’s like any garden plant – there are perennials, biennials and annuals.
What can you do with seaweed?
There’s two ways to eat seaweed – as a standalone vegetable or as an ingredient. I sell it fresh and dried – I collect at this time of year to dry the seaweed at its best. On a lovely sunny day the upper tidal stuff is already dried. The rest I bring in and hang, with a fan to keep the air circulating. Seaweed can be naturally out of the water for a week – they’re quite sturdy – so it will stay fresh for up to a fortnight. If you cover it with sea salt and then rehydrate it to use, it’ll keep for a month.
There are some people who buy the dried seaweed and put it into everything. I’ve got a little tub of it that I put into my coffee. Chefs do creative things with it – one of my customers bought some oarweed kelp and baked it covered in honey. It was absolutely beautiful.
FIVE REASONS TO TRY COOKING WITH SEAWEED:
- There’s lots of it, so it’s a sustainable natural vegetable which grows on the whole of our coastline. There are 640 different types of seaweed in the UK and they’re all edible. You can find out more about your local seaweeds via the University of Portsmouth’s Algaebase.
- Seaweed is rich in vitamins A, C E and K, and kelp specifically is the only rich vegetable source of vitamin D and vitamin B12.
- Gram for gram there’s more iron in seaweed than red meat, and more calcium than cheese.
- Seaweed can help to counter hyperthyroidism, due to its high content of readily absorbable iodine.
- If you’re dieting, eating seaweed is a good way to control your appetite. It’s low in fat, but high in fibre, which helps control blood sugar levels and keeps you feeling full.
Read the piece as it appeared on flavourfirst.org here