We consume more seaweed than we may realise. Food manufacturers use carrageenan, which is extracted from a certain type of seaweed known as Irish moss, as a thickener in ice creams, milkshakes and yogurts. It’s often listed under its less poetic name, E407. The nori used to wrap maki rolls is plain to see, but the konbu, or kelp, that enriches so many Japanese soups and noodle broths passes by all but the most sensitive palates.
These days the “in” seaweed is palmaria palmata, also known as dulse. Many people claim it tastes like bacon. John Wright, an author and expert forager, compares it to kale with hints of seashore and iodine, which strikes me as more accurate. Every time I tried it, my flavour memory reached for the tartar sauce, not the ketchup. If there’s anything bacon-like about it, it’s from a subaquatic pig.
Dulse may be the hot new thing in London and New York, but in Ireland, where it’s known as dillisk, it’s never gone away. Records from the fifth century indicate that it was eaten with bread and butter. In the 12th century priests fed it to the poor; 19th-century recipe books have it mixed with mashed potatoes in a variation on champ. It still turns up as a salty snack in pubs. Every year at the Auld Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, County Antrim, revellers can buy a bag of dulse and “yellowman”, a honeycomb toffee that makes for a sort of bare-knuckle salted caramel.
At the beach, look out for a giant corsage of burgundy patent leather. This will change to a vivid green once you’ve steamed it for 20 minutes. Or you can dry your dulse in the sun, grind it to a powder in a coffee mill and use it as natural msg. Mara, a Scottish seaweed company, claims that a couple of teaspoons of dulse will help you make the best red-fruit compote you’ll ever eat. If dulse is a taste you’re yet to acquire, you could always use your leftovers to start a seaweed album. These were a bit of a fad in Victorian times. Ladies pasted their finds into large books, and the weed dried to resemble elegant botanical watercolours in shades of sepia, pink and green. Nobody ever did that with bacon.•