A Coastal Forage: Gathering Seaweed

A trip to the coast isn’t complete without some seaweed foraging if you ask me. We’ve recently taken ourselves away to Cornwall to enjoy the rugged coastal paths, refreshing sea breeze, delicious local produce, and cold-water dips – it’s been absolute heaven! We were lucky to be visiting around the time of the full moon and spring tides when the high and low tides are at their most extreme levels, so we spent a lovely morning at the beach discovering its range of seaweeds and collecting a few to take home.

Even though I don’t live near the coast, I love learning about seaweeds and their different properties and uses, as well as what makes them unique from a biological perspective (the scientist in me will always love nerding out on this kind of thing). Seaweed foraging is generally quite safe from the perspective of identification as there are no poisonous seaweeds that grow in tidal waters, only in deep waters that you would probably need to be diving to find. That being said, busy estuaries and harbours are probably best avoided from a coliform/general bacteria point of view. Mark Williams has a really useful section of his Galloway Fine Foods website dedicated to edible seaweeds, Alexis Nicole aka @blackforager shared some great seaweed posts for her “seaweed week” on Instagram back in June, and Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland: Second Edition by Francis Bunker et al is a valuable resource too.

Gathering

So, safety first always. We only ever collect seaweeds that are still attached to a rock, and not free-floating because there is no way of knowing how long they’ve been hanging around. This means that foraging for seaweeds is best done at low tide during spring tides (meaning the low tide will be at its lowest of the lunar cycle) when lots of rocks will be exposed that usually spend most of their time underwater. There are a lot of safety considerations to make, as well as considering the impact on wild/marine life, so I want to share how we went about making sure we were safe and respectful during our coastal forage:

  • We didn’t go alone and we helped each other to stay safe.
  • We protected our feet (I am a little bit in love with my sparkly jelly shoes), were careful not to slip on the seaweed-covered rocks, and were mindful of life underfoot. Rockpools and beaches at low tide are full of fish, crustaceans and seaweeds that we didn’t want to damage or disturb if we could help it. We were also warned about weever fish and washed up jellyfish, both of whom can have nasty stings.
  • MOST IMPORTANT! We planned carefully to make sure we understood the tide times and weren’t going to wander into an area that could get cut off or engulfed by the incoming tide. Spring tides come in surprisingly fast if you’re not used to it.
  • We didn’t take any plastic bags into the sea – we used a waterproof bag-for-life weighed down with a stone and kept it on the beach so that it couldn’t potentially get blown out to sea by a rogue gust of wind or dropped by an absent-minded forager. We gathered what we needed into handfuls and took it back to the beach in batches which also served as a way to make sure we weren’t gathering too greedily.
  • On that last point – we only took what we needed and what we will realistically use.

It always amazes me just how many wild edibles can be found in close proximity to one another, and this is especially true for seaweeds. Most of the common seaweeds that you will find at low tides are likely to be useful in some way even if they’re not suitable for eating fresh, whether that’s for flavour boiled into a stock or dried into seasoning, fried until crispy for texture, or for their gelling/setting properties.

Kelp

Kelps are distinguishable by their long, wide, flat fronds and tube-like holdfasts which is what attaches the kelp to a rock. The kelp we found was oarweed, with a frond that diverges into five longer tresses, and a quite flexible holdfast when compared to forest kelp which has stiff holdfasts that stick up into the air when exposed at low tide. Mark compared it to lasagne sheets which is funny because that’s genuinely one of the things you can do with it! Our dried kelp will be used for soups and stocks, and I tend to put a square of it into the pan when I’m cooking Japanese sticky rice. I might also try the lasagne idea too if I’m feeling brave!

Dulse

Another popular seaweed in the culinary world, dulse was another that we found plenty of during our forage. It has a lovely red colour and soft texture, and packs a lot of flavour. I’ve dried some for stocks and seasoning, and I’ll be having a go at frying some to make a sea-bacon-flavour crisp or to enjoy on a sandwich.

Carrageen moss

Carrageen moss, or Irish moss, has quite a rubbery texture and not much flavour which makes it less appealing for typical uses of seaweed, but it is meant to be a great setting agent. I’m going to have a go at making a gelatine-free panna cotta and see whether the rumours are true!

Serrated wrack

Recognisable by it’s toothed edges, and also known as toothwrack, this was by far the most abundant along the beaches where we were foraging. It’s another that I’ll mainly be using for stocks and seasoning, but I’ve read that it can be good for pickling so I might rehydrate some and try it that way too.

Gutweed

This is one of the seaweeds that grows highest in the tidal zones and seems to be able to cope with long periods of being exposed. Its green, thin fronds are a familiar sight draped over rocks – it’s very abundant indeed. Even though the crispy seaweed in restaurants is usually friend spring greens rather than actual seaweed, this is probably the seaweed you would imagine being used to make it. After harvesting a few handfuls I was careful to wash it thoroughly in salt water before drying as it is very good at collecting bits of sand! My plan is to fry it and enjoy as a crispy topping to stir-fries and rice dishes, and to make into furikake (a Japanese rice seasoning).

Wrack siphon weed

As it’s name suggests, this small, fine, hair-like seaweed (I’ve heard it referred to as “Mermaid’s pubes”) grows attached to seaweeds in the wrack family (such as the serrated wrack above), presumably siphoning off nutrients from its host. The texture is probably fairly off-putting to eat raw, but when dried and crushed it has a good flavour and I’m mainly going to be using it for seasoning.

Drying and storing

Given that most of the things I want to do with our foraged seaweeds involve drying it anyway, it made sense to just dry it all and it made it much easier to transport home as well. Even for recipes that involve frying the seaweed, I would still dry it first as fresh seaweeds hold so much water that they will spit a lot which can be dangerous. Drying seaweeds is surprisingly quick and doesn’t require leaving your oven on overnight like other things. It depends on the thickness of the seaweed, so things like wrack siphon weed, gutweed, and carrageen moss didn’t take long at all, but even the kelp and serrated wrack were only drying for an hour or so. I used the oven method for quick results given that we were away from home (place on a baking tray or rack on the lowest setting your oven can manage, and keep the oven door slightly open), but it’s also possible to hang seaweeds to dry in the ambient air either outside or in your kitchen or bathroom. I would probably advise sticking to the oven method for kelp and wracks as they go through a stage of leaching a pretty slimy liquid that can be a faff to clean, and I found that a quicker drying process helped to avoid this.

My seaweed collection is now safely stored in various recycled or reusable airtight containers and I’m looking forward to experimenting with new recipes!

Have you ever foraged for seaweed? I’d love to know what you would make with these and also what you’d like to see me making. Comment below or tag me on Instagram @plotandlane where I love seeing and sharing your creations and comments!

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