Saturday 18 August 2018

Sea greens: Foraging for seaweed on the Outer Hebrides

Foraging for seaweed on the Outer Hebrides can get wet and wild, as David Walsh found out

A diver harvest sugar kelp by hand
A diver harvest sugar kelp by hand
Under the sea: Luskentyre beach on the Isle of Harris

'Are we going to go for it?" Fiona Bird shouts with a childlike exuberance over the gusts of wind sweeping across the strand.

We're standing up to our knees in the cold Atlantic, exposed on a vast stretch of beach on the southernmost tip of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides while gauging the speed of the incoming tide.

In the event, Fiona's intrepid black Labrador Coco makes the decision for us, bounding off into the water towards a rocky outcrop on the lower shore that she seems all too familiar with.

The spot is one that Fiona, a former MasterChef finalist, avid forager and author, frequents regularly when tides and weather allow. Today, she's taking me along to scour this part of the vast Hebridean coastline for edible seaweeds to gather and eat.

The 130-mile-long island chain Fiona calls home seemingly sits on the edge of the world, cast adrift from the north-west coast of mainland Scotland. This splendid isolation means the 119 islands - only 15 of which are inhabited - have remained unspoilt idylls of cerulean seas and expansive white sand beaches.

It's not long before our ankles are knotted in fronds of seaweed, grappling like tentacles to the sides of our wellingtons as we walk out further through crystalline water.

Under the sea: Luskentyre beach on the Isle of Harris
Under the sea: Luskentyre beach on the Isle of Harris

"Taste that one!" Our first find is pepper dulse, a small red fern-like seaweed known as the 'truffle of the sea'. With the swift snip of a scissors, Fiona excitedly proffers me a cutting she harvests from the wet rockface. "You don't have to, obviously!"

Brushing aside my preconceptions about eating slimy seaweed plucked straight from the sea, I steel myself and guide it to my mouth. For something so delicate, it packs a mighty flavour punch. Garlicky. Delicious. I'm hooked.

Sprightly 13-year-old Coco is by now already frolicking like a puppy on the sand and rock pools of our intended target. "In between those two rocks there, we call it spaghetti junction. It's like an avenue of sea spaghetti," she laughs, pointing in the dog's direction. "This is really why I like foraging."

Fluttering in the wind, the harvested sea spaghetti I'm holding seems aptly named, looking very much like freshly boiled spinach linguine. As I soon discover, it tastes like al dente pasta, albeit with a playful, salty tang. And that's just how Fiona often prepares it, she tells me, stirred in with pasta.

"I was really impressed that you got the tides," Fiona says on our return to the upper shore, water audibly sloshing inside her mauve wellingtons as she strides. "You can go and pick blackberries in the rain but with seaweed - the seaweeds that are worth picking, anyway - you need the moon."

Seaweeds start growing earlier than land-grown spring greens, and, of course, to reach the best of it, you need a low tide. A cursory look on Fiona's Twitter feed before meeting her shows just what uses seaweed potentially has in everyday cooking. Hollandaise sauce, marmalade, salads, breads, scones; the list is inexhaustible.

The tradition of gathering seaweed to eat has long been established on this Gaelic-speaking archipelago, though it was oft-times regarded as 'famine food' to be consumed in times of hardship. These days, seaweed is considered a mineral-rich superfood, gracing the passes of Michelin-starred restaurants with foragers like Fiona keeping the practice alive.

It is also back in the spotlight thanks to entrepreneurial ventures like the Isle of Harris Distillery. While it is primarily a whisky distillery - whose single malts must first slumber in casks to mature for a minimum of three years - it has initially produced an Isle of Harris Gin for sale using another of my beach finds with Fiona, sugar kelp.

The sugar kelp used is sustainably harvested from underwater forests around the Outer Hebrides by hand by a local diver before being distilled with nine other botanicals. It's the coastal elements of the gin, though, that have arguably helped raise its profile above its burgeoning number of Scottish counterparts, with devotees including the likes of Nigella Lawson.

Imbibing a seaweed-infused gin every now and then is one thing; gathering and eating algae regularly is another.

"I don't know what 'seaweed' tastes like," she admits as we discuss her menu at home.

"It's like asking someone 'what does chocolate taste like?' You know? What I try to show people is that seaweed is not all green and slimy. Every seaweed tastes different. Visually they're quite different."

She tips her wellingtons upside down to release a torrent of seawater. "And to get the decent stuff, you have to get wet!"

 

The facts

HOW TO GET THERE

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.ie) operates daily flights to Glasgow from Dublin, with prices starting from €29.99 one way. Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries (calmac.co.uk) offer a range of tickets to island hop to get the full Hebridean experience. David travelled on a Hopscotch 14 ticket around Harris and the Uists, priced at €118 for a car and two passengers.

WHERE TO STAY

The luxury self-catering Blue Reef cottages (stay-hebrides.com) overlook one of Harris' most beautiful beaches at Scarista. As well as a well-appointed modern kitchen and underfloor heating, each cottage has a sauna and jacuzzi.

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