The fifth taste
A guide to Cornish seaweed
Wild seaweed has been harvested along the coastline of the British Isles for centuries, but only now are its health and culinary benefits truly being appreciated. We explore further, written by Kate O’Brien.
Long extolled as a superfood in Japan and China, seaweed’s wider popularity owes a lot to the British phycologist Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker. By cracking the elusive lifecycle of a type of seaweed called nori, Drew-Baker became known as ‘Mother of the Sea’ in Japan, paving the way for seaweed farming on an industrial scale, one delicate nori sheet at a time. It is thanks to her that we have the sushi roll.
In 2012, a pioneer on Cornwall’s Lizard peninsula obtained the first licence to harvest seaweed from English waters. Before long, the Cornish Seaweed Company was supplying Michelin star chefs with the locally sourced ‘légumes de la mer’ that so subtly manifest the fifth taste, umami – the moreish, savoury taste that only in the past few years has been recognized after salt, sweet, sour and bitter.
Today, along the Cornish coast seaweed is handpicked from natural reserves, where an abundance of alternating layers of over 650 species hold fast to rocks or float adrift on spring tides.
Mysterious and beautiful, seaweed defies classification. It belongs to a diverse group of algae whose fronds, branching taxonomic kingdoms, are more readily identified by their culinary uses, or simply by colour: brown, red or green. Beginning with brown and the submerged kelp forests of the sub-tidal zone, reds emerge from the mid and low shores where rocky habitats support nori, Irish moss and dulse. Seaweed exposed on upper shores transform sunlight to tangles of nutritious greens.
Every two weeks a spring tide pulls Cornish foragers to the foreshore, synchronising their movements with the rhythms of the biggest tides. February to March and September to late October are the best times to harvest: the magnetic pull of the moon uncovering rocks draped in garlands of glistening seaweed, including hundreds of obscure species yet to be discovered.
Cornwall’s brightest and most delectable edibles are well known to locals, with a few listed here, starting deep below the waterline.
Known as kombu or sea ribbon for its thin and intertwining fronds, kelp was once used to make potash for the glass industry. Today kelp is more readily found as the essence of dashi stock.
Meaning ‘wings’ in Latin, alaria is also called Atlantic wakame or dabberlocks. In spring, alaria grows up to four meters long on the low shore. A powerful source of vitamins B and C, it imparts a soft, chicken flavour when cooked with rice.
Dulse flat floating digits a deep red that are harvested sustainably from spring to autumn. Traditionally used as a substitute for chewing tobacco, its rich peppery flavour has recently been developed as an alternative to bacon.
Laver, as it is known in Wales, nori glistens like oil slicks on the rough surfaces of rocks. It has a mild nutty taste. Nori ‘fluffed’ from more exposed rock has sweeter notes.
Sea spaghetti begins life as a ‘button’ and grows in dark green strands. Rich in calcium and magnesium it is usually served with pasta and lends a distinctly beefy flavour when added to soup.
Characterised by its spongy look on the mid to low shore, and for its anti-viral and adhesive properties, carrageen is used in the production of ice cream, toothpaste and lipstick. It was once a staple Irish desert — a cruel, lactic white pudding called Irish Moss that has thankfully fallen out of favour.
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