White sand, turquoise sea, clear unblemished skies; it’s hot enough to warrant sun screen. Where am I? Not the Caribbean, but Scotland. Specifically the Outer Hebrides, the westernmost islands of the British Isles. Fiona, in a mini skirt, wading through the water, laughs: ‘They do call Barra Barrabados.’
Today is the April spring tide, a full moon, and the sun is blazing on the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist. I get a text from seaweed forager Fiona Bird: ‘I will be at South Glendale beach as near to 13.00 as I can. Low tide is 13.30. First sharp right after Eriskay causeway, over the cattle grid and park next to the second cattlegrid.’
Carrying baskets and scissors, we walk out far onto the beach into the intertidal zone. We go past the spitting spoots, the local name for razor clams, in the pock-marked wet sand. This is one of the deepest zones to collect seaweed, and usually covered with water. A day or so after a full moon or a new moon during the spring is when you get the best tides for foraging. And, in April and May, it’s not too cold. There is a fierce wind but we are warm. Seaweed, like land plants, have a growing season.
We can see long, bright green petticoats of frilly sugar kelp laying flat on rocks. When the tide is in, these fronds stand up, shimmying in a kelp forest.
Fiona is married to the island GP on South Uist and has lived here for ten years. When not helping out her husband at the surgery, she’s a food writer, ex-finalist on Masterchef and passionate forager. She’s the Queen of Kelp. The wind blows her hair every which way, but she is in her element, a veritable mermaid on a rock. She wears jade plastic sandals, fancifully I wonder whether they hide webbed toes.
Unlike most foragers, who keep their untold valuable places secret, Fiona is generous with showing me her special rocks, where the pepper dulse and carrageen are to be found in abundance. We pass beached fronds of sea spaghetti, Himanthalia elongata, spread like splayed squid. ‘I call this area spaghetti junction,’ says Fiona. I taste it raw, enjoying the briny crunch.
‘You cut it at the fork. Always keep the holdfast, don’t cut there.’ The holdfast is the part that is attached to a rock, or a shell, or the sea bed. When collecting, avoid cutting the holdfast. ‘You mustn’t be greedy when foraging,’ states Fiona. This is a message I hear repeatedly.
There are three types of seaweed – red, brown and green – but all of them are green when cooked. The great thing about seaweed foraging is that none are poisonous, none will kill you, in stark contrast to the hazards of mushroom hunting. The sole danger would be an iodine overdose.
Seaweed keeps for about three days in the fridge. Only rinse it in fresh water just before use. You can preserve it by drying in a low oven, an airing cupboard or the sun. Drying makes the flavour stronger. Strangely, seaweed isn’t salty when you cook with it. It’s best to avoid ‘stormcast’, that is, the seaweed on the beach. It needs to be freshly gathered from sea water. Rocky shores are more fruitful places for foraging than sandy beaches.
Fiona doesn’t consider herself to be a phycologist, a scientific expert on algae. She’s learnt by trial and taste. Her book ‘Seaweed in the Kitchen’ (Prospect Books 2015) is detailed, well-researched and informative, with a recipe section.
Historically seaweed has been used as a fertiliser for crops: in Jersey seaweed is spread over new potatoes on vertiginous hillsides, while in the Outer Hebrides the ‘tangle’ is used to preserve the Machair. Early 18th-century author Martin Martin mentioned in his work ‘A description of the Western Isles of Scotland’ that Hebrideans used seaweed as medicine, for instance to kill worms, and for food, boiled with butter, similar to the Welsh laverbread. It was a good source of nutrition in times of food poverty.
Fuel for fires was another function as trees were scarce and peat didn’t occur on every Western Isle. During the Napoleonic wars, kelp from the Hebrides was expensive, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of soap. Today Highland Soaps continue this tradition, employing Hebridean seaweed to make artisanal soap.
Marine botany was a primarily feminine occupation in the past, particularly during the Victorian era, and that still seems to be the case. I’ve met seaweed foragers such as Hope Merritt from Sitka in Alaska who sells packets of dried bladder wrack to combat high blood pressure, and sea asparagus pickles. In West Lothian, Monica Wilde, who has 21k followers on Instagram, spent a year living only from wild food, including marine plants, a study called ‘the wild biome project’. Likewise two women, Angelita Eriksen and Tamara Singer, run Norwegian company Lofoten seaweed. Perhaps it appeals to the little mermaid in us, a human harking back to ancient amphibious memory. I think of the Japanese pearl divers ama, a tradition of female fishers that dates back 2,000 years.
A few days before, on the southern part of Harris, the Hebridean weather being changeable, I drive through sea mist to meet Amanda Saurin. She’s a qualified homeopath and herbalist, who, since moving to the Hebrides, has turned her attention to seaweed. She runs Temple Harris, a coffee and cake cafe, the architecture similar to a ‘black house’, which is traditional here, with a beamed vaulted roof and thick walls. When she and her husband bought a house four years ago, it came with a cafe across the road.
Temple Harris is probably the only establishment open on a Sunday on Lewis and Harris. This is a useful amenity for visitors: she says she has ‘had to make dinner for starving tourist families’ unaware that the ‘Wee Free’ devout Protestant community on the island takes the Sabbath very seriously.
Visiting Amanda’s local beach, leaning against the wind, she points out Fucus serratus, or toothed wrack, a jagged-edge kelp that she uses in her cosmetics. We pick up parasitic fluffy brown balls (Vertebrata lanosa), which have a brilliantly descriptive common name, sea pom poms, which taste like truffle. ‘This beach is like a treasure trove,’ enthuses Amanda. A little later I make a quick dish of sea pom poms folded into scrambled croft eggs on the camper van stove, then eat them hot while sitting on a rock.
Does every beach have its own type of seaweed? ‘There’s a lot that are common to all of them. But a few beaches have distinctive rock formations which encourage the growth of certain seaweed. So on the next beach we get far more pepper dulse than we do on this beach,’ explains Amanda.
Her apothecary and distillery is located next to the ferry. ‘People here think I’m a witch,’ she jokes. I don’t blame them: her kitchen is full of giant glass jars of mysterious and colourful ingredients, sometimes floating in liquid, sometimes stacked with dried peel or spiky bleached flowers.
Seaweed is increasingly used in drinks. In 2021 Saurin created a worthy competitor, ‘Wild Eve’, in the global race for complex, delicious non-alcoholic drinks. ‘It’s as special as wine. It has all the heat and the length and the complexity of alcohol. Just no alcohol,’ says Amanda. Having tasted it, an elixir of sugar kelp seaweed, rosa rugosa, camomile, honeysuckle and bog bean, I couldn’t agree more. It has a heady light effect, like champagne. Several Michelin-starred restaurants, such as The Kitchin in Edinburgh, stock Wild Eve as well as Amanda’s seaweed bitters.
Sugar kelp, Laminaria saccharina, also known as sweet kombu, has a white powdery substance on it. ‘That’s the mannitol, a natural sugar,’ indicates Amanda. Working with diver Lewis Mackenzie, Amanda supplies Sugar Kelp Aromatic Water to infuse Isle of Harris Gin. Another Hebridean gin company, Atlantic Gin from Isle of Barra Distillers, uses Carrageen to add a crisp saline base note.
A large drinks company offered to buy ‘Wild Eve’, but Saurin turned them down: ‘We are a no-grow company. We only make 10,000 bottles a year. We can do that without having any detrimental effect on the fragile ecology of this island. If you pick wild, you should never take more than a fifth of what’s there. My belief very strongly is that you should be so light in your touch that no one would know you’ve been there.’
Cooking notes: seaweed is excellent for wrapping fish or meat, and better for the environment than tin foil. Fiona Bird uses seaweed to create a mother for sourdough, boosting the mineral content of the loaf.
Sea and land spaghetti vongole
For the vongole sauce:
- 3 tbsps generous of olive oil
- 3 shallots, finely chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- dozen palourdes or more, if the clams are small
- glass white wine
For the pasta:
- sea salt
- 400 g spaghetti (not quick cook)
- Large handful sea spaghetti
- Handful of sorrel or parsley
- In a tall wide pan, heat the olive oil, then add the shallots and fry till golden.
- Add the garlic and the clams.
- Add the white wine
- At the same time, for the pasta, boil water with sea salt in a large pan until boiling.
- Add the spaghetti and cook for 2 minutes less than stated on the packet.
- 1 minute before the pasta is cooked, add the sea spaghetti. If it's young, it shouldn't take more than a minute.
- Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the pan with the clam shells. Stir.
- Serve with the herb of your choice: either baby sorrel or parsley.
Sea truffled scrambled eggs
- 2 tbsps butter
- 3 fresh eggs, best quality you can firm
- 2 tbsps single cream
- salt and pepper to taste
- Pinch seaweed
- Melt the butter in a frying pan on medium heat.
- Whisk the eggs with the cream. Season with salt, pepper and add the seaweed.
- Pour the eggs into the frying pan and whisk with the fork until cooked.
- Serve with bread and butter.
I drove a camper van from camperdays.co.uk. Prices are from £120 a night and it sleeps six people. There is a gas stove, fridge, shower, heating and power sockets.
Thanks to Calmac for ferries from Ullapool to Stornoway; Harris to North Uist; South Uist to Barra; Castlebay on Barra to Oban.