On the Monday before Christmas, Paul O’Connor’s stall was short on stock. It might not have been prime healthy eating time yet, but the weekend had been busy for his seaweed trade.
A group of four approached the stall, and O’Connor stepped up to help them decipher the seaweed on display. He offered a pinch of dried, chopped purple dulse from a small tin. One of the women scrunches her nose at it, but her three companions try the dry, salty seaweed.
O’Connor finds that dulse, or dillisk, as Gaeilge, is the most popular variety in his range. He says it’s a healthy alternative to salt. “You can just chew on it or sprinkle it over mash potatoes or egg,” he says.
Jokes the older woman of the group: “You can put it on your chips!”
They move on to the next stall.
Beyond a Washed-Up Mess
A marine biologist and seafood enthusiast, O’Connor moved home to Ireland last May to set up his business, This Is Seaweed, and spread the seaweed gospel. It’s a tasty source of nutrients, he says.
Often, at markets, nose-scrunching is the first reaction to the thought that people might actually eat this stuff.
“People have an association with seaweed that it’s this stuff that’s washed up on the beach,” he says. “But that stuff that’s washed up is ripped up by a storm and then starts to decay immediately, so by the time you smell it on the shore it’s a rotting piece of algae.”
The trick is to get to it before it rots. O’Connor sources his organic produce from off the west coast of Ireland. It is picked by hand and dried in such a way that the vitamins and enzymes remain intact, he says. It smells better this way, too.
Seaweed enthusiasts need a licence to harvest it commercially, but not to gather it for personal use. Eating east-coast seaweed isn’t a great idea though, says O’Connor, because of the pollution this side of the country.
“If you saw people collecting seaweed around Dublin Bay, it would be primarily for making fertiliser,” he says.
O’Connor says he’s converted some recoiling customers by highlighting seaweed’s nutritional value, and telling them when and with what they should eat it. Seaweed can be used in soups, shakes, salads and stir-fries.
Dulse is rich in zinc, iron, omega-3, omega-6, and vitamins B6 and B12, he says. It’s a salt substitute, but can also be sprinkled into a salad or a pasta dish straight from the tin. “It’s a really good one for vegetarians, because of those nutrients,” he says.
Got thyroid-gland issues? Try cooking up some kelp, he says, as it’s high in iodine. Stir five grams into a stew or chilli con carne, and simmer for half an hour, he suggests. Or you can use it to make dashi, a key ingredient in miso soup.
“And if we move on now to sea spaghetti, this one is rich in magnesium, potassium and vitamin C,” he says. The green plant needs to be rehydrated before it’s eaten. He suggests boiling it like you would spaghetti, and then adding it to a pasta dish.
There are 560 types of seaweed available off Ireland’s coast. O’Connor estimates that we use about a dozen of them for cooking.
One study of Irish seaweed shows it’s high in antioxidants. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver drew attention to seaweed last year, reportedly calling it the “most nutritious vegetable in the world”, after losing weight on a seaweed diet.
Seaweed, in other words, is in.
“All the top chefs seem to be adding a seaweed recipe either in their restaurant or their book,” O’Connor says. Rachel Allen, Richard Corrigan and Donal Skehan all dabble.
In some ways, he says, it’s a rediscovery rather than a new trend. “I remember, as a child, chewing on dulse.”
A Growing Appetite?
Before O’Connor left Holland last May, where he was working at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, there was a growing buzz about seaweed there, he says.
This was largely down to the Dutch Weedburger, he says. With its patty moulded from briny soy shreds and Royal Kombu, a type of seaweed, this meal is sold as a sustainable alternative to meat.
But it’s difficult to grow seaweed over in the Netherlands. So O’Connor spotted an opportunity to feed the appetite for organic seaweed from here.
O’Connor now exports to Holland, and, if all goes to plan, his kelp will be in supermarkets all over the country by March. “Even though Holland doesn’t have a cultural history of seaweed, there is a trend brewing,” he says. ” Hopefully I’m going to hit it at the right time.”
Here in Ireland, O’Connor is taking part in SuperValu’s mentoring programme, the Food Academy. If he woos the supermarket’s board, he’ll get his products in some of their South Dublin stores.