Sam Buckley: on seaweed

by Sam Buckley 28 March 2022

A trip to Wales' northern coastline rewards Sam and the team at Where The Light Gets In with an abundance of seaweed and coastal herbs to work with back in the kitchen.

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With an arsenal of innovative experimental preserves, his own rooftop kitchen garden and relationships with the best producers in the UK, Sam Buckley works with his team in the airy open kitchen to create multi-course tasting menus of pure magic at his Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In.

With an arsenal of innovative experimental preserves, his own rooftop kitchen garden and relationships with the best producers in the UK, Sam Buckley works with his team in the airy open kitchen to create multi-course tasting menus of pure magic at his Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In.

It was the first day of March and the first sunny day of the year as we headed to Colwyn Bay in search of seaweed.

As we travelled along the coast road, the sea started to appear between the gaps in the dunes and we began to grow giddy. My grandad used to give 10p to the first of us who spotted the sea when travelling this road to our holiday caravan in Prestatyn. I still like to offer the same reward, though these days the winner might have to accept contactless.

Arriving in under ninety minutes from our restaurant in Stockport, it struck me just how close we are to the coast. Along with North Wales we have a vast coastline, from The Wirral to Morecambe Bay, in a similar proximity. We live on a small island and as such the sea is never far away. Coton in the Elms in Derbyshire is the farthest place from any coastline in England, but it’s still only seventy miles away. One could argue that for most of us the sea is on our doorstep, available as a local resource for fun, relaxation and – of course – food.

The team and family members spilled out of two cars in a car park on the perimeter of Conwy Castle and headed to the stretch of coast just beyond it. The day was still and bright, with the small boats floating on the glass-like surface of the green sea. The castle, sunk hard into the rock, felt like it was made for a postcard. Rough jetties protruded from the grounds of old cottages and at the end tugboats had wedged themselves into the silty surface of the estuary. It all made me feel comfortably transported to a place and time that felt just right.

We stuck to the bay that runs seaward along the estuary. To our side the beachhead is stopped abruptly by rocks that clamber up to a small road and beyond that the back gardens of private houses. To the other side of the narrow channel, we could see small sand dunes and grasses. There is a coastal path that cuts through these dunes and takes you further to the final outlet, where the channel suddenly opens up into the Irish Sea. The gulls and the castle, the foamy horizon, the clean salty air – all offered enough reason to be out there. Anything else felt like an added bonus.

We immediately stumbled upon bladderwrack. Although not the choicest of varieties, the new growth is wonderfully tender and when run through a light pickle to match the saltiness it provides a great addition to any dish. Fish is the obvious choice but it goes rather well with mutton too.

Whilst a group of us kept our eyes bent to the ground, the others craned their necks to the rocks to find pennywort growing in the cracks of hard-to-reach places. Pennywort (or navelwort) is a member of the stonecrop family and grows abundantly in clumps in the cool dark crevices of rocks. It has a fresh cucumber-like succulence and faint aromas of fresh peas and grass. It can be great blended up with mayonnaise to give a rich colour but also used in salads. It’s excellent on top of smoked salmon or trout too.

Amongst the pennywort we also found rock samphire. Such a beautiful looking plant and full of so much saline character. It was the beginning of the season so the plant, also known as sea fennel, was still in growth. Here it is important to be responsible and take only a handful until the plants have fully established themselves later on in the season.

Combing the sands we found the odd bit of sea lettuce which, like all seaweed, is salty with a deep hit of umami due to its natural glutamate content. We also discovered some small samples of pepper dulce which is, as the name suggests, peppery with a whiff of truffle. After a splash in the rock pools, we decided to venture to the other side of the channel.

We crossed through Conwy, had a cup of tea at a cafe with a promise of fish and chips on the return, then headed to the other side of the castle to the coast. We crossed over the marshes, splashing mud, slipping and occasionally sinking, until we found firmer ground and an abundance of marsh samphire graveyards, the brittle corpses of last season’s plants rearing up from the sand in a defiant death grip. These plants won’t show sign of life again until around June. Until then, Tesco will continue to ship this sea herb from Israel where it is farmed – of all places – in the desert. Go figure.

Beyond the zombie-like landscapes of marsh samphire there were scattered bushes of sea purslane, the new leaves coming through in shades from burnt orange to sage green, each leaf plump with the salty succulence that only sea herbs give.

For the beginning of the season (seaweed is best between January and May) we got a nice diverse selection of seaweeds and sea herbs to add to the menu. We headed back up the winding hill and crammed into the nearest fish and chip shop, the owner clearly being used to muddy boots crossing his threshold. We sat along the pier watching the sun slowly roll down the sky, enjoying our fish and chips and feeling smug to be nestled into a little Welsh seaside village on St David’s Day.

The fact that we are surrounded by coastline and that it is near enough for most of us to call it local is hard to believe given our distant relationship to aquatic produce. Fish is looked upon as fiddly, full of bones and hard to prepare. Most species are still alien to us, with supermarkets giving us little more than the meagre choice between cod and salmon. Plant life from our seas and coastlines is scarce on menus and supermarket shelves.

We have not always had a lack of appetite for seaweed. Old cookbooks show that at one time we enjoyed a healthy dose of the stuff – and healthy is the operative word here. Not only is seaweed abundantly available, making it a cheap food source, but it is also crammed with nutritional benefits. It is high in iodine, helping to regulate the thyroid. It is full of fibre and rich in protein. It contains important vitamins and antioxidants and helps regulate levels of estrogen. There are even theories now that it contains more of the omega-3 than the fish that feed off it.

To top this off it also beneficial to farm. Growing seaweed has a carbon-negative impact whilst helping to mitigate climate change and agricultural runoff. It has a positive effect on water bodies when used in conjunction with shellfish farming, bringing strength to the diversity of marine aquaculture. In other words, farming these tasty plants to feed the nation would work wonders for the environment as well as our bodies.

Knowing all of the above to be true, and knowing that seaweed can be delicious, I have always wanted to champion it more at the restaurant but I have to admit that I have struggled to get it into dishes or to create a dish where it is the main ingredient. I think a part of this is a lack of cultural context – for ideas I tend to look to Japan and Korea where (on islands of a similar size) seaweed is used with abundant creativity and flavourful impact.

Last year I visited Inver on the shores of Loch Fyne, where Pam Brunton prepared a seaweed pie. Layers of light and crisp handmade filo pastry sandwiched a vibrant green filling of seaweeds plucked from the doorstep of her idyllic restaurant. The seaweeds were rich and meaty, incredibly hearty and nourishing. It was one of the most exciting and comforting things I ate all year.

The truth is seaweed needs a rebrand. It needs a hero. Instead of Popeye chugging down a can of spinach, let’s have him put away a bowlful of seaweed. We would do well to pull it back out of history, to get to know it again and instead of thinking of it as that slimy yucky thing that gets stuck in your toes when swimming in the sea, start to think of it as an incredibly rich and diverse source of food, full of flavour and creative intrigue, great for the body and good for the planet. Plus, if your shopping list entails a trip to the seaside, it offers a grand day out too.