This week’s That’s Farming Women in Ag segment takes a slightly different course. We discuss the old age practice of wild food foraging, focussing on seaweed, which Marie Power, aka The Sea Gardener, has built into a diverse business entity.
Marie grew up on the Copper Coast, Co. Waterford. Her introduction to seaweed as a food happened when she was young.
“As a child, we were given seaweed as a healthy food. I can’t say I loved it, but it was considered being good for you, so you ate it whether you liked it or not,” she told That’s Farming.
“In the old days, people, especially my relations, saw it as a very noble and healthy food to eat. They gave it to us in its pure form, which is not really for everybody.”
In 2007, she attended a Copper Coast Geopark workshop with seaweed expert, Prannie Rhatigan. This inspired her to look into seaweed again.
She began to forage for seaweed on the local beaches in Co. Waterford and experimenting with it in her cooking. However, she took a more subtle approach introducing it to her family at first.
The Sea Gardener
Also, she included some seaweed food tasting in an Irish Wildlife Trust outing on rock pool ecology. This event in March 2007 was her first workshop, held at Kilfarrassy Strand, Co. Waterford.
“The turnout was huge, and it was clear there was an interest in seaweed foraging, cooking, and in the natural world.”
This led to further workshops, developing into a regular appearance at the Dungarvan Food Festival at Clonea Strand, now an annual event.
“It was really a hobby for a year or two. And then a couple of the local food festivals asked me to do the forage for them. It was way oversubscribed.”
“This was about 12-13 years ago. I think it was just at the time when the public was starting to show interest in foraging again; in wild food and the general sourcing of food.”
She adds that many top chefs have also made it quite popular recently.
In 2012, Marie decided to blend her skills from the world of management and education as a training consultant with her interest in ecology and foraging. She undertook the University College Cork diploma in field ecology.
Book on foraging and cooking
At the same time, she also published her book, The Sea Garden – a guide to Seaweed Cooking & Foraging.
The book followed many years of foraging and experimenting with cooking, which eventually led to several recipes.
“I was writing down and handing out recipes to people. And then someone said: ‘Why don’t you put all that into a book.’
“I had already come across one or two seaweed cookery books, but mostly with an Asian focus.
“Hence, I decided to write a book that integrates seaweed into fairly ordinary Irish cookery. The intention was not to write for chefs, but more for everyday cooking.”
Today, The Sea Gardener business has evolved into three basic legs:
- Workshops and events;
- The seaweed product range;
- The Sea Garden.
Workshops and events
The workshops and events traditionally start around St Patrick’s day and normally continue to about October.
An event typically lasts about three hours and involves bringing people down to the shore to forage the tastiest varieties.
These are mostly done on beaches on the Copper Coast. You need a rocky beach with clean, pristine water. I tend to avoid the more busy, public beaches because of their heavy usage.
“I show them what is edible and tell them how to cook it. This may involve a cook-up on the beach. Basically, we have a picnic on what we have foraged.
“Also, I teach people to forage sustainably. We cut about one-third of the plant and leave the rest of it to regrow.”
Additionally, she caters for workshops and events for schools, both at the primary and secondary levels.
The Sea Gardener products include the following:
- A range of dried, milled seaweed blends for cooking, e.g. soups and stews, seasoning, salads and stir-fries, sweets and baking, etc;
- Protein bars;
- Pure seaweed: dried organic Irish leaf carrageen moss and dillisk;
- Green tea with cinnamon and seaweed.
The products are supplied through several local shops and are also available through her website.
Commenting on the book, Marie says that it has done really well and better than she initially expected. It is currently in its fourth reprint.
The Sea Garden is a pocketbook designed for seaweed foragers, both “newbies” and for those who are experienced.
It describes the top ten edible seaweeds on the Irish coast in detail, with images and drawings of each one to help identify it correctly.
Moreover, there are recipes and cookery tips, and information on health benefits and gardening uses.
The popularity of seaweed as food
Elaborating on the popularity of wild foods like seaweed, Marie says that people turned away from foraging in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Even picking mushrooms and blackberries, which we used to do as kids (disappeared). But 10-15 years ago, it literally came back.”
“People knew seaweed is good for them and has health benefits.”
“Also, they were aware that it was popular in Asia and possibly one of the reasons why certain Asian health statistics were better than certain Irish and European health statistics.”
“Despite the health benefits, they were not really sure what to do with it.”
Marie adds that her approach and encouragement is to use seaweed in small amounts.
“You can have it in your breakfast cereal, salads at lunchtime, or in your curry. There are so many different ways to incorporate it. Have a little bit of seaweed at a time, but have it often.”
Focus on about 12 edible species
“There are hundreds of species on the Irish coast, but I focus on about 12 edible species, which I think have the best taste.”
These include a few different kinds of kelp, wracks, and then the finer seaweeds – the dillisk, the sea lettuce, the pepper dulse.
The latter are the softer ones you can use straight from the rocks in, for instance, salads and sandwiches.
Looking at history, Marie says evidence points to the Irish hunter-gatherer population – dating back 10 000 years – eating seaweed. This is most probably due to its high nutritional value.
“Also, it is a storable food that obviously was important in the old days before refrigeration. Dried seaweed can last for years. And it does not seem to lose much of its nutrient value while in storage.”
Seaweed, touted as a superfood, is a nutrient-dense food that is high in protein but low in calories. It is also high in fibre, hence good for digestive health. Moreover, it contains high levels of micronutrients.
“Trace elements such as iodine, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, and zinc are all found to a varying extent depending on the species of seaweed.”
Demand from vegetarians and vegans
According to Marie, demand for seaweed also comes from increasingly more people becoming vegetarian and vegan. This is particularly because of seaweed’s B vitamins and protein.
“There are three species growing along the Copper Coast that will give you all your B vitamins, including B12, which is a tricky one for vegans to get.”
As far as the foraging of seaweed for personal use is concerned, Marie says this is allowed. However, any foraging for commercial purposes requires a license.
Going forward, Marie would like to focus on the workshops and events. And although she is happy with the product range, she is not planning to expand it. Also, she has an idea for a follow-up book further down the line.
See her website.
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