Sea spaghetti, anyone? Or how about a bladderwrack bath? Gayle goes foraging for seaweed in the East Neuk with Jayson Byles.
Since meeting up with Jayson Byles on a beach in the East Neuk, I’ve bathed in bladderwrack and crafted myriad dinners from various species of foraged seaweeds.
Jayson, a professional seaweed harvester, is a man bursting with passion and enthusiasm. He’s a man who, at first sight, resembles Captain Jack Sparrow, with his flailing dreadlocks, sparkling eyes and ready smile.
Like Jack Sparrow, Jayson is brave and dedicated to his mission – not of slaying pirates of the Caribbean, but of finding his very own treasures in the North Sea.
He moved to the East Neuk three years ago after being offered a management position for a commercial seaweed company. Unhappy with the amount of plastic the company was producing, and keen to pass on his skills of self-sufficiency, Jayson set up East Neuk Seaweed this year.
I’m lucky enough to have Jayson all to myself on a sunny, but extremely chilly, morning in April. We meet at Kingsbarns beach and after a quick briefing, we head down to the rocky shore.
“Most of the action happens in the inter-tidal zone, so the best time to harvest is during the lowest tides, known as ‘spring tides’,” he explains.
We’re on a mission to find an array of seaweeds and when we do find them, we need to harvest them sustainably. That means not ripping out the “holdfast”, the structure that attaches seaweed to rocks and allows it to grow again.
Our first find is bladderwrack, an iodine-rich form of kelp that’s been used medicinally for centuries.
“Put this in a bath and your skin will feel amazingly moisturised,” advises Jayson, plonking a huge handful of the slightly sinister looking stuff into a bag.
Having tasted and loved pepper dulse previously, I whoop with excitement when Jayson finds it in abundance and invites me to pluck some straight from the rocks.
“Try that in a stir fry later if you don’t eat it all raw first,” laughs Jayson.
While elusive, we do indeed find sugar kelp, dulse and dabberlocks, but Jayson is determined to locate some sea spaghetti.
“I’ll need to dive into the sea to find some. I’ve got my wetsuit on and the sun’s out – I’ll be fine,” he smiles.
Minutes later, he emerges with three bags of the stuff which we sample, raw.
“This stuff is amazing,” he says. “My favourite way to eat seaweed is fresh off the rocks. I like simple, so fresh sea spaghetti quickly blanched with a nice dressing and eaten with salad is probably one of my favourite seaweed dishes. Another favourite is porphyra or nori/purple laver, as it’s available in late winter before most land plants have awoken.”
While some regard seaweed as ugly and hazardous to shore-strollers, look at it from another perspective and it’s actually rather beautiful – the ruby red fronds of dulse, the balloon bubbles of bladderwrack, the leathery belts of kelp and translucent green of sea lettuce.
Unconvinced by its associated benefits? Jayson is more than happy to extol its virtues.
“Seaweed is pretty balanced with carbs and protein and high in vitamins.
“It’s also high in magnesium, potassium and all the trace elements that are lacking in modern diets. Washed up seaweed is great for the garden as a mulch, a liquid feed or to boost the compost heap. The ‘alginates’ in seaweed are widely used by
both the food and beauty industries,” he enthuses.
When it comes to cooking with seaweed, Jayson, who worked as a professional chef in his native New Zealand, as well as in Australia, Ireland and Scotland, is an expert.
“There are so many options with seaweed – it’s so versatile. If I don’t have seaweed with my eggs in the morning, then my day isn’t the same,” he says.
Jayson’s move from working for a commercial seaweed harvesting company to running his own small business, is, he says, much more sustainable, relatable and enjoyable for everyone involved. It’s also more much supportive for local communities and less impactful on our environment.
“We’re surrounded by this natural abundance, but the only seaweed available to buy is either cheap imported or high end ‘artisan’,” he says.
“I want to pass on a variety of immersive experiences and skills in self-sufficiency, coupled with a respect and awe for nature.
“I take small groups of people on exciting journeys to discover nature’s abundance. On a trip, you’ll learn how to spot inter-tidal zones, how to identify edible seaweeds as they come into season, and how to stay safe in this potentially dangerous environment.
“Wild foods are nutrient dense and unparalleled in terms of health benefits, but we need to be respectful and think long term about the impact on the habitat.
“It’s a constant balance and I hope to really embed that philosophy of moderation into how we approach any wild food.”
Back home in the evening, I can’t wait to start experimenting with my seaweed and first up is my bladderwrack bath.
Once I get used to the strange fronds tickling me (and the odd snail shell), I relax and enjoy the oily, moisturising feeling. Heck, who needs Radox!
Conscious of being eco-friendly, I use the drained bladderwrack as compost in the garden and I’m sure I can see the potentilla starting to perk up!
My dinners for the week are utterly sumptuous, something I never usually say about my cooking. I experiment with stir fries and spaghettis and…just wow!
Seaweed – I salute you!
Jayson is running a series of daytime and sunset edible foraging sessions via East Neuk Seaweed during summer. Tours are based in the East Neuk, but Jayson will travel to groups outside the region. Bespoke sessions can be arranged. Topics include identifying
edible seaweeds, staying safe, sustainability, wild and seasonal cooking, beach craft survival skills, and other uses for seaweed. For more information and to book, see www.eastneukseaweed.com