Wandering the beach near my home in Penzance, I found myself perusing the organic wreckage strewn across the sand after a storm. Mingled amongst the debri of Sea Spaghetti (Himanthalia elongata) and its own roots I found Sea Grass. Looking a little like washed up wild leeks, or green strands of sea weed, this plant is rather unique and important.
What is Sea Grass?
I first read the words 'Sea Grass' in relation Gutweed, Ulva intestinalis seaweed, it was a term used to describe this long, thin, green seaweed. Who wouldn't re-name Gutweed, lets face it, Sea Grass is a much nicer, but a misleading name. Sea Grass is not a seaweed, nor is it gutweed. Sea Grass is Sea Grass; an actual plant that, unusually and unlike seaweed, roots itself under the sea, forming meadows, almost like underwater fields. I've kayaked over it on the Helford and swum over it on the Isles of Scilly and it is beautiful to see.
I love beauty. I also love function and Sea Grass also has a really important function.
Needless to say I was both pleased and saddened to see it washed up, in abundance on my local beach. Pleased, because it meant that it was, or had been, alive and growing nearby. Sad, because now it was detached from its rooted home and lying dead.
What's the importance of Sea Grass?
There are over 60 species of Sea Grass (Posidoniaceae, Zosteraceae, Hydrocharitaceae and Cymodoceaceae) worldwide and they provide essential ecosystems for wildlife, produce oxygen and help dissipate waves. Though to me, the most important and stunning function of Sea Grass is that it stores up to 10% of the world's carbon. Seaweeds also help to store carbon. Annually, Sea Grass is considered to lock up 24.7 million tons of carbon. Though some Sea Grasses are at risk, and expected to become extinct.
In times gone by, Sea Grass has been used to stuff mattresses and even used as bandages or fertiliser. Though these days, I think that storing carbon is the most valuable thing it can do for us and the planet. Sea Grass beds (areas where they grow) need protecting, as over 12,000 square miles of Sea Grass have been lost over the last few decades. Activities that contribute to its decline include; over fishing and mechanical disturbance such as motorboat blades disturbing it when moving over shallow water.
How can we help protect Sea Grass?
Sea Grass provides an amazing bed for biodiversity and is currently disappearing at a rate of 2 football fields an hour. There are several ways we can protect Sea Grass (boat propellers are mentioned above, and awareness of where Sea Grass beds are and tides in relation to this, so not to disturb it at low tide). Other ways include reducing fertilisers and pollution which end up running off into the Sea Grass beds blocking the sun that is needed for the Sea Grass to photosynthesis and reproduce. As well as reducing over C02 consumption, as Sea Grass is also affected by rising sea temperatures, which is linked to climate change. Supporting small scale fishing rather than over fishing, and reducing trawling fishing and bad practice. Finally, sharing the word on the importance of Sea Grass to us and the rest of the ecosystem and wildlife.
Learn about seaweeds and how to protect them
As well as the information above (which also benefits seaweeds), on my seaweed foraging courses I show participants how to harvest seaweeds by hand, for personal use, in a sustainable way. It's one way we can take care of the seaweeds that are taking care of us. I run seaweed foraging courses most months, and you can view courses here on the course calendar.
I’ve wanted to try this recipe for ages, for possibly 2 years this recipe has been sitting in a recipe book and in my mind and somewhere in side of me I’ve been eager to make it. Though perhaps not eager enough, until now.
Sea spaghetti cheese straws just sounded like a wonderful idea, an idea that I wouldn’t of thought of, and that excites me. I’ve cooked sea spaghetti (Himanthalia elongata) as, literally, spaghetti, I’ve done it as tempura (both recipes in my Seaweed Foraging Book) and added it into soups, see my Three Seaweed Soup with an Inner Kick recipe. So this, I had to try.
I’d found this sea spaghetti recipe in Prannie Rhatigan’s book; Irish Seaweed Kitchen. I’ve tweaked it a little, of course, isn’t that what cooks do?! I also love the fact it uses Bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus) seaweed too. Ground and sprinkled into the pastry (I’d never of thought of that either), so here it is.
A Sea Spaghetti and Bladder Wrack Seaweed Recipe
Sea Spaghetti Cheese Straws (with Bladder Wrack Pastry)
- 10 g dried sea spaghetti
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 75 g butter
- 75 g plain rye flour (or other plain flour)
- 75 g red Leicester or mature cheddar cheese, grated
- ½ tsp dried, ground bladder wrack
- ½ tsp sea salt
- Black pepper, generously ground
Soak the sea spaghetti in cold water for 30 minutes. Drain, pat dry (it will stain cloth, so choose carefully what you use to do this) and toss in the lemon juice. Leave to marinade for at least ½ an hour. It does look horrible and slimy, but trust me! You can omit the marinading process, and the result will be a chewier centre, which is also delicious, just not melt in your mouth.
To make the pastry, combine the rest of the ingredients until thoroughly mixed and it forms a ball of dough. Cover in clingfilm, or a quick plug for a reusable alternative – Organic Cotton Beeswax Wrap – made in Cornwall and perfect for sealing (seal with an elastic band or string) over a container with the pastry in. Put in the fridge for at least an hour. Go out for a walk, see a friend, relax with a book....
Grease a large baking tray (or 2 smaller ones) and roll out the dough to a 15 x 30 cm rectangle. Lay one strand of sea spaghetti along the length and fold the pastry over it, so it just covers it and is encased within it. Cut neatly along the side and cut the whole strip into 7 cm lengths (bite size pieces) and place on the baking tray. Continue until all the pastry is used up. Place in the fridge for 1/2 an hour. Preheat the oven to 190°C and bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Keep an eye on them, they can cook quickly! Remove from the oven and leave for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
Lovely party snacks, though we just enjoyed them on the beach with a seaweed and wild garlic dip.
Sea Spaghetti, also known as Thongweed (Himanthalia elongata) is one of the seaweeds I cover on my seaweed foraging courses. which I run throughout the year. If you'd like to go seaweeding on a specific beach that I don't cover, I can offer a bespoke experience, tailored just for you.
I've been reading in this Saturday's Guardian how Thomasina Miers has been supping lots of soup so far this year, and I feel like saying 'me too', though not for the same reasons many women have validly and valiantly been saying this across continents.
Tommi Mier's restaurant chain Wahaca specialise in Mexican food, and while this isn't a Mexican dish, it is definitely inspired by the spicy punch that Mexican food often has. My me too is about supping soups. Soups that are warming, healthy and bring people together, especially on a cold March morning. It's been cold, too cold and soup is the perfect remedy, this one's got a chilli kick to get your inner fire going, if it isn't already by the outrageous scale of the #metoo movement and the injustices it highlights.
Back to the soup.
This soup using 3 locally foraged seaweeds;
- Kelp (Laminaria digitata)
- Sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima)
- Sea spaghetti or Thongweed (Himanthalia elongata)
These could also be substituted for a mixture of;
- any kelp seaweed (Dabberlocks, Oarweed, Furbelows, Wakame),
- any wrack seaweed (Bladder wrack, Serrated or Toothed, Spiralled)
- pepper dulse could also be used instead of black pepper for one layer of the 'kick'.
Oh, by the way, kelp is called kombu in Japan, and the basis of this soup is similar to a vegan version of dashi stock which combines kombu and shitake mushrooms (and omits bonito flakes which are fish).
There is lots, lots more I could say about seaweed, and soups, though here I'll keep it simple and just offer you this recipe.
(Soaking the seaweed and straining off the ingredients for making the broth)
Three Seaweed Soup
A warming broth which is so simple to make and is great on its own or can be used as a base for a noodle soup or more of a substantial soup, broth or stew.
- 12cm length of dried kelp (or 1/3 more if fresh)
- 12 cm length of dried sugar kelp (or 1/3 more if fresh)
- 10cm single length of sea spaghetti (or 1/3 more if fresh)
- 2 litres boiling water
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 3cm chunk of ginger root, chopped
- Lots of freshly ground black pepper
- small handful of dried chanterelle mushrooms
- 1-1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes
- soy sauce to taste
Cut all of the seaweeds into small pieces and place in a large pan. Add the boiling water, then all the rest of the ingredients, except the soy sauce. Place a lid on the pan and leave to simmer for 40 minutes. Place the mixture in a food processor and blend till the pieces are broken down, or strain if you prefer a clear broth. Add the soy sauce to taste. Serves 6 as a small bowl of soup, or 12 as a small starter/taster.
The finished Broth, before I ladle it into a hot food flask and take it to the beach to share with participants on a seaweed foraging course.
Unique Island Foraging
Really, like nowhere else.
Sudi Pigott, food journalist and author compared Gourmet Foraging and Dining on Scilly to an experience at Noma - Rene Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant, which, at least twice has won best restaurant in the world awards (S. Pellegrino 50). Noma specialises in using foraged and seasonal produce and has a world renown reputation.
According to Sudi, we were on a level with Noma (Daily Express, 2011).
Travelling to the Isles of Scilly always feels magical to me. I couldn't get much closer really (well not much) and still live on the mainland. The Scillonian ferry is 10 minutes walk away from my house, and standing in the right place I could watch the boat leave and return daily, in season.
Foraging can appeal to such a wide reach of people, from foodies to wildlife enthusiasts, and Scilly really is the perfect environment for it. A series of islands, low population numbers and a priority for wildlife including birds, plants and sea life, plus a distinct lack of cars and motor vehicles is ideal for foraging to flourish in the clean air and land. Indeed, foraging has happened a-plenty in Scilly in the past, piles of empty limpet shells on (the now uninhabited island of Samson) pays testament to that.
(The Foragers: Hell Bay Gourmet Foraging and Dining Break, Isles of Scilly)
And what about now? Like elsewhere in the UK, foraging has largely been forgotten, and the Coop (the largest food shop on Scilly) is perhaps an over-used substitute for the wild stuff. Local foods are still used though, when available. Though I can't help casting my eye across all those beautiful fresh ingredients, forgotten in the hedgerow, fields and coastline.
When I first approach Hell Bay with the idea of doing gourmet foraging events, I wanted the best. The best chef, environment and eating experience that would allow the wild ingredients to really be appreciated for what they are - special. Special, abundant and worth rediscovering.
Our group of enthusiast guests, felt similarly (I hoped), and joined me for 3 days, 3 islands, 3 walks and 3, 5 course gourmet dinners - including the ingredients we'd foraged during the day. Travelling from various areas of the UK, foraging became our common ground, oh, and discussions about the hotel's enviable art collection.
We may not have looked like foragers, though looks aren't everything, and in a way, foraging was just the medium we used - the chosen lense to appreciate the islands and the natural abundance they had to offer. Indeed, both people's adventurous spirits, and the wild plants themselves came up trumps, my favourite being when we focused on the seashore...
Foraging for seaweeds is tide dependent and on the islands it is also dependent on the times of the boats. On our final day of foraging we got the boat to St Martins island. A sensitive juggling; this wasn't the first time we'd got dropped at the opposite end of the island to expected and planned for! A low tide is perfect for seaweed foraging, though not for mooring boats - oh well, we got to the island, were wellied up, well some of us, while others dared it with bare feet or trainers. Thankfully the coastline of St Martins came up with the goods.
It amazes me that pottering around just one collection of rocks enabled us to forage for a wide range of seaweeds to accompany our dinner.
I had a 'shopping list' of 7 seaweeds, which we snipped off with scissors and took, happily back to the hotel kitchen. Idyll memories of aisles of sandy beaches, rock pools, paddling expeditions and a little clambering, looking under kelp forests and getting faces up close to the splish, sploshing water around us. Those who chose to, watched from a distance, enjoying the sun while the wellied ones paddled out to find the freshest finds. We laid out are proud findings on the rocks (who ever took photos - I'd love a copy!) before revising their names and bundling them into our baskets before heading off to lunch.
The evening's menu was always greeted with satisfying ooohs and aaahs - all the excitment you would expect from a special dinner party. I love that part - although we forage together, I like to keep the evening's menu a surprise. It's like revealing a new painting - we've worked creatively behind the scenes - myself helping design the menu and advise processes, then leaving the chefs to use their talents and skills to create 5 bespoke courses with a range of colours, textures and visual arrangements. Like art, food comes down to personal taste, though the variety and skill seemded to be enough to please everyone...
Some dishes were a hit, while others had a mixed response that might be expected from more experimental cuisine. Personally, Sea Spaghetti (Spaghetti-like seaweed) with Grilled Turbot and pangretta with sea lettuce, followed by Rice Pudding with crystalised Alexander stems were hits with me. Though some disagreed! Other's loved the hogweed seed biscuits that accompanied Cornish cheeses - for me, I was completely satisfied already and had no room for anymore. All created within the style and quality you expect at Hell Bay.
Unique Scilly foraging it is.
I could list all the dishes of each evening, though just as a taster, here's the menu we enjoyed on our second evening after foraging on the Island of Tresco and an afternoon free to enjoy the Tresco Abbey Gardens.
- Sorrel & Wall Oxalis Soup
- Fennel Tempura Fillet of Hake, dressed White Crab Meat, steamed Rock Samphire,
- Pan roasted fillet of Venison, Nettle Gnoochi, Frosted Orache, Three-cornered Leek puree, Chocolate & Yarrow Jus.
- Gorse Flower Creme Brulee with Blackberry Leaf Sorbet
- Cornish Cheeses with Hogweed & Alexander Seeded Biscuits
I offer bespoke foraging experiences on the Isles of Scilly, my availability is limited, and especially limited in high-season when the chefs are exceptionally busy. Luckily, foraging is best in early spring and autumn - do bear this inmind if you'd like to experience the wild side of these beautiful islands.