The very first time I harvested my own seaweed snack was in 2008 while doing research for a column and book I wrote with fellow foraging enthusiast, Fiona Houston (co-founder of Mara). We met Scottish restauranteur and seaweed expert, Margaret Horn, on her local beach, where she regularly snacks on Dulse and looked twenty years younger as a result.
The frilly edged seaweed fronds, which Margaret plucked from the shallows, looked good enough to eat. And we did. Delicate and translucent as gelatine leaves and the colour, somewhere between burnished mahogany and aubergine purple. Its texture was that of smooth resin or high quality leather, not gloopy or slimy. It was clean and odourless - the taste test: a bit chewier than parma ham, imparting a delicious intriguing, earthy flavour which deepened as you continued to masticate. I was instantly hooked.
Later, Margaret rolled fronds of dusky pink Dulse around a poker, and toasted it in the fire, until the weed squealed. She finished it off with a sprinkle of brine, because you almost can’t have enough salt. The end result was a snack with crisp and crunch, infused with a level of smokiness that wasn’t a million miles away from the taste of bacon. Dulse was “the” original bar snack, served up 100 years ago in taverns to stave off hunger and keep the ale flowing. Being an anti-oxidant and powerhouse of minerals, food doesn’t get cleverer than this; it can replenish the parts that need reviving. Margaret remembered the bad times when fishing boats came back empty - there was always the seaweed to fall back on. Her gran used to make a sustaining broth with potatoes, onions and Dulse to nourish her family. As little as 6g of Dulse seaweed has the same amount of iron as 100g of sirloin steak.
Dulse has been valued from Neolithic man, through St Columba. Much like kale, this lowly food has a history of transforming itself through the ages from crofters' food to Michelin chefs' go-to ingredient. Survival to revival in a short passage of time.
Our 10,000 km of coastline in Scotland gives us a unique advantage. Not being a seafaring nation anymore, it is now more about protecting our natural stock of green gold, as well as the black gold, as part of Scotland’s treasure chest.
In 2011 Mara obtained the first license in Scotland to harvest seaweed, which we have been doing sustainably since then. Wild harvesting occurs at spring tides when there is either a full or a new moon. There are roughly two tidal “windows” per month, so we harvest about 12 days a month when the seaweed is in season (sea vegetables have a growing season just like land veg). It’s not for the faint hearted or lie-a-bed types. If high tide is 7am, harvesters have to be in position on the beach, baskets in hand, high vis gear on, at least two hours before that! The optimum window for picking is based on the tide's punctiliousness. It has never been known to be late.