Ask the expert: Ebb Tides

Seaweed, yes that slippery stuff that makes us fall over on rocks, is increasingly becoming a popular foodstuff here in the UK. We catch up with Tony Coulson, founder of Ebb Tides in East Devon to find out more about it’s appeal…

Seaweed isn’t a sexy foodstuff, we reckon, so sell it to us. Why do you think we should indulge?

First off, the UK’s shores are surrounded by seaweed. Eating-wise, there are five or six different types that are interesting. There’s the brown stuff we most commonly associate with British beaches – these are the kelps. They grow mainly underwater, and you harvest them at low tide. Then, further up the shore, you get the red seaweeds, and further still, with the sunlight, you get sea lettuce.

Kelps are renowned for their savoury qualities, that beautifully earthy flavour we’ve learned to call the fifth taste: umami. The Japanese have been using them for centuries to make miso stock, soaking and boiling the kelp with noodles or fish. Then there’s red seaweed, the main one being dulse, which has a rich and smoky depth to it, with a hint of spice. I grind and put it into a Moroccan blend or marinade. It’s known as Irish seaweed because the Irish baked with it a lot, particularly during the potato famine, as it’s rich in protein. In the US, it’s been commercialised as an alternative to bacon. You can fry it for a few seconds and use it in a BLT. (Or, as I call it, a DLT.)

Green seaweed, or sea lettuce, has a delicate flavour with a hint of pepper. Mixed in with these you’ll find laver (also known as slake) and nori (which has a liquorice type taste). These seaweeds are really versatile to cook with.

Sounds surprisingly good! So, how do you go about collecting and preparing it?

It’s very simple; that’s why I like it. My business is dictated by the moon, tide and weather. Kelp relies on spring tides. I sustainably harvest it by taking just half of the plants – plus I rotate the areas where I harvest, giving them plenty of chance to regenerate. I have stipulations set by the Crown Estate and Natural England which dictate where I can and can’t forage.

I dry the seaweeds using dehydrators, the same way you’d dry fruit. It dries reasonably quickly and retains its nutrients. Some of the seaweed I keep in whole form, so my customers can put it in salads and recipes, and others I flake and put in grinders, so people can add them as seasoning to their food. In today’s fast-moving society people want to live more healthily, but don’t necessarily have the time to source and prepare meals – so the grinders are a handy solution. I want to demystify seaweed, and encourage people to throw their salt away and use seaweed to enhance their food instead.

To the food, then. What can we cook with seaweed?

There are so many options! Dulse is high in protein, so it works great in smoothies. Go for a run and then have a recovery drink, made with dulse, yoghurt and banana. Or, add it to pasta – it’s yummy, as it has a tuna-like taste. With ground kelp, you can add it to beans on toast, or use it as a pizza topping – it tastes particularly great with anchovies. Kelp can also be used as an alternative to pasta, in lasagna-like sheets. Curries made with it are also really nice. Or follow the Japanese, and use kelp as a base to make miso soups. Sea salad goes very well with fish and chips, or serve it with shellfish for a real taste of the ocean.

What would you say to people who are put off by seaweed’s slimy reputation?

I’m trying to change perceptions! And nobody’s died from eating seaweed yet, to the best of my knowledge. What’s really hit me is how positive people have been to what I’m doing here at Ebb Tides. I do lots of food festivals, and always find that people really like the taste of our products – once they’ve crossed that queasiness barrier. Give it a go! It’s not for everybody, but people are often surprised at how delicious it is.

Eating seaweed isn’t a new phenomenon, is it?Haven’t our ancestors been chomping on it for donkey’s years?

Yes, that’s right. There’s evidence that when humans lived in caves by the seashore, they were living on shellfish and seaweed. The earliest evidence of that is in Chile. Japan, Korea and China also have a long history of eating it. In fact, 10 years ago seaweed provided about a quarter of the daily intake of food in Japan. And it was found that people who ate seaweed lived the longest!

In north Devon, there’s a history of laver harvesting, and in Wales they harvested larver in the Pembrokeshire area. In Scotland, there’s a history of eating kelp. They also feed it to their sheep, which flavours the meat. Ireland’s west coast also has a long history of eating seaweed, as does Iceland and Scandinavia.

It’s sounding ever-more appealing. Finally, win us over by telling us about a few more health benefits…

Seaweeds are detoxifying and are said to have anti-aging properties, so they’re good for the skin. In Ireland, there’s a tradition of having seaweed baths, which allows your body to absorb the minerals. It’s also probiotic, so it feeds a lot of good bacteria into the gut. It supplies roughage, fibre and is low in salt. It’s also packed with Omega-3 fatty acids, which help to give healthy cholesterol levels. In fact, it’s said to be the healthiest plant on the planet! No other plant is so dense in minerals, because it absorbs them from the sea.