While all seaweeds to be found on the shores of the British Isles are edible (there are some toxic ones but they are rare and dwell in the deep sea), they can require considerable inventiveness to be converted into an appetising prospect.
Pepper Dulse, Osmundea pinnatifida, however, the ‘truffle of the sea’ (or ‘foragers’ crack’ as I sometimes think would be appropriate) can be grazed straight off the rocks for its outstanding flavour and easy texture.
Because it’s so worth finding, here are some pointers. Its shy, linear colonies haunt crevices or rock pools that are covered at high tide, often in the shadow of two or three other species. It is a red algae, technically, a ‘flat fern weed’. In layman’s terms, it’s a rich brown, petite in scale – I think I’ve only ever found lengths of between one and two joints of a thumb – growing in small clumps that need careful trimming with a knife or scissors to harvest. The shape is like a 2D tree, tapering towards the crown, longer lower ‘branches’ with nub-like side shoots along their length. The flatness is characteristic, as are the rounded chubby ends of the fronds.
Its taste is umami, mushroom, peppery, salty, mineralicious, and very strong; for other descriptions of just how good it is, I refer to our filmmaker friend Carney James Turner, who was with us to capture chefs at work this summer.
“I’ve been very lucky for a number of years to travel round the world and taste a lot of things. Pepper dulse is probably one of the top three things that I’ve tasted in my life. It’s incredible, seaweed, but it’s a mouthfeel that is so grandiesque it’s ridiculous and like a real creaminess, richness… Chefs call it Narnia. There’s a rich complexity to it.
“It’s like the love you give, the love you take, the love you yearn, and it’s in your mouth! I’m probably going completely over the top on this…”
Thank you Carney.
In cooking, though it adds general enhancement, the peppery goodness can get lost, so it tends to be used raw (fresh or just dried on a plate in a warm kitchen) to season boiled eggs or fish or scallops, or steak, or lamb, or just about everything in my house frankly. It’s great mixed through mayonnaise for a fish dish, or mixed through butter.
For me, the purest way to experience all the enhancing salty bass and zincy treble of its character is infused in white alcohol, pulling it out before it totally runs a-mock, like you would a teabag.
Super-easy wild-umami Pepper Dulse martini
- Equal parts Botanist and Blackdown Silver Birch Vermouth, over ice.
- Steep pepper dulse for 5 minutes in the mix, couple of fronds per person.
- Strain to serve.
- Garnish with a fresh sprig of less than 1cm – it will sink after a few seconds.
Try the same thing in the vodka for a Bloody Mary, you won’t look back.
Useful articles from Mark Williams’ website:
Landlocked? Live seaweed vicariously here http://maraseaweed.com/pages/harvest
John Wright’s River Cottage Handbook The Edible Seashore is a great place to start with seaweeds and very much more.
Video of pepper dulse discovery, featuring some of our forager friends