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The Milkwood seaweed harvesting guide
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I'm reading
The Milkwood seaweed harvesting guide
Pass it on
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I'm reading
The Milkwood seaweed harvesting guide
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4 April 2019

The Milkwood seaweed harvesting guide

To the sea, to the sea…

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

When the surf is booming from the big seas that spring storms can bring, there’s almost always seaweed to be gathered along the shoreline. Down we go at low tide with our baskets, bags or sacks, sometimes to the beach and into the waves, sometimes along the rock shelf. We pick and choose the freshest pieces of seaweed for eating, and other pieces to make into nutrient-rich teas for our vegie garden. It’s a seasonal ritual, of sorts – a time of the year that we look forward to, when we restock both our pantry and our garden shed.

Seaweed is downright amazing stuff. If you’re looking for an easily accessible wild food and nutrient resource that can grow metres in a single year; draws in goodness from sunlight, air and water; and is jam-packed with minerals, protein and nutrients, it’s hard to go past seaweed. Add to that impressive list of features a compulsory trip to your nearest beach or rock shelf to gather it, and you might just have the perfect wild resource.

Seaweed comes in all sorts of colours and shapes, all with different features, tastes and nutrients. Some are big and some are small. Nearly all are edible, and most are very tasty.

In Australia we generally don’t, for some reason, have the same excitement and reverence for seaweed that you’ll see in many other coastal nations. As a kid growing up by the beach in Kiama on the south coast of New South Wales, Kirsten recalls only once seeing a family gathering shoreline seaweed. When she asked them about it, they turned out to be a visiting Japanese family. They were quite perplexed that all this goodness was just sitting there, unloved and uneaten, on the clean yellow sand.

Fast forward a few decades and we were farming in the dry hills of inland New South Wales, on inhospitable soil. Gathering enough nutrients to feed the vegetables in our market garden was a problem, so we were using a fair bit of Seasol (a liquid seaweed product) to keep the vegies happy in between rounds of compost. During a visit to Kirsten’s parents’ house in Kiama, she was sitting on the beach, surrounded by seaweed, when the light bulb went on: seaweed – it’s right here!

And so the shift in our thinking occurred. What seaweeds do we have here? Which ones are edible? Which should we use on our vegetable garden? Which ones should we feed to our family? We started gathering, researching, experimenting, making, using and eating. And we haven’t really stopped.

Our pantry always contains three to four types of seaweed in various amounts. They get used in stews and broths or as sprinkles over vegies and rice. Seaweeds make their way into our sauerkrauts and kimchi, and there isn’t a bean that gets boiled without a piece of kelp in the pot.

The garden gets its share, of course—seaweed teas are a great way to grow strong seedlings or cheer up stressed plants. And they’re a great way to get new minerals into our homestead’s system that the land wouldn’t otherwise provide.

Right now we’re living a few hours from the ocean, but that’s fine. Spring seaweed-gathering road trips, here we come. A chance to explore new beaches, gather new tastes and make dinner in the dunes—our kind of weekend.

Seaweed harvesting kit

Take a basket or bag that lets water out but keeps seaweed in, plus a smaller bag or bowl for smaller species. Slip-proof shoes are a great idea if you’re heading to the rock shelf, as well as a tide chart and a foldable sharp knife. Foraging with a friend is always a great idea!

As with any type of foraging, being mindful of your environment is key, in multiple ways:

  • Only forage from somewhere that’s relatively clean and non-toxic–for seaweeds, this means avoiding ocean outfalls and polluted waterways.
  • Check the regulations where you’re going before you head off.
  • Take the freshest seaweed you can find—generally the lighter coloured and more unblemished the seaweed, the younger it is.
  • Storms dislodge seaweed, so a good time to go foraging is just after big seas (unless you have a wild coastline where the swells are always big).
  • Take a harvesting bag, basket or bucket with holes in it—taking seaweed home is great, but lugging extra sand and seawater is less so.
  • Stick to gathering seaweed well below the high-tide mark—the seaweed at or above the hightide mark is generally colonised with all matter of critters, and is relied on by shorebirds for their lunch and performing important biosphere functions. Stick to the fresh stuff.
  • Forage lightly and mindfully—if we want vibrant ecosystems, it’s up to all of us to take only our share.

Choosing what to harvest

Unlike plants and fungi, the overwhelming majority of seaweeds are edible and there really aren’t many that are inedible. There are a few exceptions on each continent, so do some research and find out which ones to avoid.

Generally speaking, the different types of seaweeds are used for different things. There are plenty of great resources that cover specific species and their uses (more on this is covered in the Milkwood book). It’s a bit tricky to talk about algae types and groupings in a non-botanical way (apologies to our botanist friends), but here’s the general rundown of a few common types, in plain English.

Wrack (mainly Fucus spp)

The wracks are particularly high in alginates and are commercially harvested all over the world to make agar. Wracks are mostly edible and quite nutritious, but their taste is often considered less than inspiring. They are usually eaten cooked, or dried and crushed.

Kelp (Laminaria spp)

Kelp prefers colder waters, so is found in temperate and colder seas and oceans all across the world, in the subtidal zone. The kelps are generally fabulous for eating when blanched or dried – wakame, kombu, bull kelp, golden kelp and sugar kelp, to name but a few. They can also be eaten fried or flaked.

Laver/nori (Porphyra spp)

Laver can be found clinging to rocks around the high-tide mark. It looks a little bit like draped cellophane when dried up between tides. Porphyra of various species can be found across the world, where it is variously called laver (Europe), nori (Japan) and karengo (New Zealand). It can be eaten blanched and added to laverbread, dried and eaten as is, or made into nori sheets.

Sea lettuce (Ulva spp)

Sea lettuce is a common bright green, lettuce-like seaweed that you’ll find across the world on rocks in the intertidal zone. It’s delicious and is often used fresh or blanched, or dried for delicate flakes and garnishes.

Dulse (Palmaria spp)

Mainly considered a northern hemisphere species, dulse is another intertidal species that hangs in long ribbons from rocks or sometimes on Laminaria species. It’s a prized dried seaweed and tasty eaten fresh too. Known as dillisk in Ireland, dilsk in Scotland and söl in Iceland, dulse is typically dried and eaten much like chips as a snack, or flaked into cooked dishes.

Images and recipes from Milkwood by Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar, Murdoch Books, RRP $45.00 Photography by Kate Berry and Kirsten Bradley, Illustrations by Brenna Quinlan.

This article is part of our “Healing the Land” campaign at Dumbo Feather. For more stories, inspiration and ideas, purchase Issue 58 of Dumbo Feather or subscribe

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