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Wales is fast becoming a favourite destination for foodies in the British Isles and quite frankly this is not a surprise. Wales after all, is home to some of the finest food in the world; the best restaurants in Wales will tempt you with a variety of culinary delights using local produce that is often award winning. Whilst in Wales I urge you to sample the flavours of celebrated cheeses, fresh fish, fine beef, lamb and even wines. Wales has really come into its own where food is concerned and you’ll find there is a lot more to Welsh cuisine than a bowl of lamb cawl and a slice of Bara Brith.

In the next few articles we will take a series of trips around Wales and examine the finest places to eat, stay and play. We are going to begin with a trip to South Pembrokeshire where it would be rude not to sample the local greenery. So, pop on your wellies, grab your bucket and spade as we head down to the beach and prepare to delight in the wonders of seaweed.

South Pembrokeshire is known for its sandy beaches, craggy rocks and clear blue waters, all of which make it a popular tourist destination. There are many great places to visit in Pembrokeshire from cafe’s and hotels, to castles and nature reserves. Indeed there is something for everyone of every age, but the focus of this article is on the green gold of Wales, the speciality seaweed known as laverbread.

kelp seaweed

kelp seaweed

Admittedly seaweed won’t win any beauty contests and it does carry a reputation for being slimy, however, seaweed has some health benefits that are hard to get from foods that grow on land for example a healthy serving of seaweed contains more iron than a sirloin steak.  Now before you cry ‘the steak will be tastier’, seaweed can be a delicate treat for the taste-buds when prepared correctly, so don’t just assume that it’s going to be peculiar or as delicious as a decaying cucumber! Simmered into a savoury broth or made into an energising smoothie are just some of the quick ways you can enjoy your seaweed and get a real health boost.

With an unusually high proportion of protein seaweed is also richer in essential vitamins and micro nutrients than any other food group. A prime source of bodybuilding minerals such as iodine and potassium, this is the food of real-life – Popeye’s.  It is also the only plant source of vitamin B12, which is necessary for the production of red blood cells, and which can sometimes lack in meat-free diets, so in short, seaweed is one of those raved about super foods, but before you start muttering about faddy health trends the health benefits of seaweed have been known for centuries.

Scientists have long believed that iodine-rich algae’s such as seaweed play a role in reducing the risks of cancer and other disease.  According to some recent research seaweed also contains a host of bioactive substances proven to lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, promote healthy digestion and even tackle the free radicals that can cause cancer.

The most common form of seaweed, is nori and whilst you might associate it with hand-rolled sushi, it is closely related to laver seaweed and it can be used for a variety of recipes and can be found growing around the British Coastline. Laver, is a delicate but in its raw state inedible seaweed, that needs to be boiled for 10 hours to release its truly amazing savoury, slightly salty, fishy flavour. Rich in glutamates, laver is one of the ingredients of umami and an absolute must for the creation of a true Celtic breakfast. Once cooked, it can be used in soups and fish stews, or made into traditional Welsh laverbread oatcakes that then get fried in bacon fat and served with cockles.

Laverbread has a strong Welsh identity and is not to be confused with other seaweeds, indeed this seaweed is so strongly Welsh, that, it is now a culinary delight that is protected by the European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, which will provide consumers with the confidence that they are eating the genuine article, in exactly the same way that Cornish Pasties and Melton Mowbray Pork Pies are protected.

Laverbread is a very unique product as its taste and appearance is affected by the cleanliness and temperature of the sea water, as well as the method of producing it, making it a characteristic of its origin and it has a very long history.

Collecting the laver, a type of seaweed, to make Welsh Laverbread was a small cottage industry in Pembrokeshire, dating back to 1800. The laver was thrown over thatched huts to dry before being sold to businesses in Swansea where it was cooked into Welsh Laverbread and sold at local markets. Laverbread was very popular with the South Wales miners and was known as ” bara lawr”, making for a healthy component in their diet and supplying their bodies with essential vitamins.

Today, laverbread is not as popular as it was in the early nineteenth century, but it maintains its tradition of being sold in Swansea. On my quest to learn more about laverbread and how best to eat it I headed off to Swansea which has had a large and bustling indoor market.  Swansea’s indoor market has been a thriving, hub of this city and the Cockle Rotunda stands in the jewel in its crown. 4 rotundas is owned and run by the Swiston family and first began trading in the old Swansea Market and over the years has built up an enviable reputation for quality seafood and fish; including mussels, whelks, seafood cocktails, jellied eels and of course the popular staples of fresh cockles in their shells and laverbread!  Carole Watts who runs the stall (and is the third generation of her family to do so) explained that laverbread is best served hot and is delicious spread on toast.

The laverbread for sale on the cockles and shellfish stall is black with a green hue and it became obvious to me as I gaze at it is dark appearance why it is sometimes referred to as black gold. For me laverbread is not a delicacy to be eaten cold, I found its salty, soft texture much better hot and some of the Swansea market regulars suggest that I take some of the laverbread home and make Laverbread Bake: a hot mixture of laverbread, cockles, bacon and onion, topped with melted cheese that is served with wedges of hot buttered toast.  It sounds delicious and my version certainly makes the most of the fresh cockles and laverbread purchased from Swansea Market.

seaweed

seaweed

Laverbread Bake

Ingredients

  • 225g laverbread
  • freshly ground white pepper, to taste
  • 225g/8oz picked cockle meat, cooked
  • 25g/1oz butter
  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • onion finely sliced
  • 225g Mature cheddar grated
  • 8 smoked bacon rashers, diced
  • Hot Buttered Toast to Serve

Method

  1. Melt the butter in a frying pan until foaming, then add the leek, onions and bacon and fry for 4-5 minutes, or until softened. Add the picked cockle meat and cook for a further 1-2 minutes, or until heated through. Add the laverbread and stir to combine.
  2. Season with white pepper to taste
  3. Transfer the mixture to an oven proof dish and top with the cheese
  4. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes on a medium setting, until the cheese is melted and the dish is bubbling
  5. Serve with hot buttered toast

If you don’t have time to pop over to Swansea Market  to buy your laverbread or have a spare ten hours to boil up the laver seaweed then Parson’s Pickles produce amongst other things laver seaweed in a tin.  The laver seaweed sold by Parson’s Pickles is that which is found on the western coast of the British Isles, growing on beaches where rocks are embedded in sand. It is harvested by The Penclawdd Shellfish Processing Company which is no easy task as laver attaches itself to the rocks by a ‘hold-fast’ making it laborious to collect. After picking it is washed thoroughly to remove the sand then cooked before being minced to make a smooth, pate type texture. Traditionally the seaweed was collected and hand-washed before being cooked in boiling pans over coal fires;  although today the process is done using the very latest boiling pans and technology, using gas heating, the method of cooking is basically the same.

The Gower peninsula: the thumb of land sticking out under the hand of south-west Wales is the celebrated home of laverbread from the  rocky southern shore and cockles from the estuary. It’s beaches are picture postcard pretty and are well worth a visit and perhaps whilst there you can indulge in a true South Wales breakfast.

A true Welsh Breakfast – Laverbread, bacon and cockles.

For four people or two very hungry ones!

Ingredients

225g ready-prepared laver seaweed

50g fine oatmeal

225g  picked cockle meat, cooked

25g unsalted butter

1 leek, finely chopped

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 tbsp freshly chopped flat leaf parsley

50g bacon fat

8 smoked bacon rashers, fried until crisp, to serve

Ground black pepper to taste

Method.

In a bowl, mix together the laver seaweed, lemon juice, fresh parsley  and oatmeal until well combined. Season, to taste, with freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a frying pan until foaming, then add the leek and fry for 3-4 minutes, or until softened. Add the cockle meat and cook for a further 1-2 minutes, or until heated through.

Take golf ball sized pieces of laverbread mixture and roll into balls. Flatten the balls slightly to make small patties.

In a separate pan, heat the bacon fat over a medium heat. Fry the laverbread patties, in small batches, for 2-3 minutes on both sides or until golden-brown all over.

To serve, divide the laverbread amongst four serving plates and spoon over the cockles and leeks. Top each serving with two slices of bacon.  If you want to be super indulgent top it all off with a poached egg.

If you are a lover of traditional foods and feeling squeamish about eating green, slimy things or struggle with getting greens into little tummies then my mash potato is a must for you.

Seren’s Seaweed Bubble and Squeak

This recipe is fantastic served with fish, but also works really well with Glamorgan sausages.

Ingredients

500g Mashed Potato

225g Laverbread (prepared and cooked)

30g unsalted Butter

Juice of Half a Lemon

1 egg yolk

100g grated cheddar

Salt & Pepper to season

Method

Peel and mash the potatoes in unsalted water, once cooked, drain and mash with the butter. Beat in the egg yolk and seaweed. Stir in the grated cheese and season to taste. Serve immediately.

Seaweed Smoothie

Seaweed and Strawberry

Strawberries are rich in vitamins and minerals. They have diuretic, purifying and detoxifying properties. In addition, red fruits are recommended and beneficial for asthma and allergy problems, add this to all the fabulous mineral qualities of seaweed and we have a smoothie that is a powerful tonic, that will allow us to eliminate accumulated toxins due to excesses and start the day full of energy

Ingredients:

5 Strawberries, hulled

1 tea cup of rice, oats or almonds milk

1 tablespoon of cooked seaweed (I use laver)

1 twist of lemon

Pinch sea salt

Method

Cut the strawberries into pieces, add a pinch of sea salt and let it marinate for 20 minutes.

Mix rice, almond or oats milk with the strawberries in a liquidiser.

Add the seaweed and lemon and liquidise again.

Serve over ice

The Green Goddess

Ingredients

1 frozen banana peeled and chopped

¼ pineapple including core chopped

300ml cold water

2 tablespoons of lava seaweed

2 tsp local honey

Method:

Put everything in the blender and blend until smooth, pour into a glass and enjoy immediately.

With such evident health benefits it makes us wonder why don’t we cook with Seaweed more? After all it is a bountiful, natural resource, growing freely on rocks around our coastline. Dried seaweed is available in oriental groceries and health food shops or for a fresh taste of the sea Iain McKellar runs JustSeaweed.com, Britain’s only fresh seaweed store, selling rock-grown algae’s cut from the waters off the Isle of Bute. Iain is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to seaweed and if you don’t fancy picking yours but want to cook with fresh, his company offers a great way of sampling different fresh seaweeds.

Indeed, there is even a café dedicated to seaweed, café Mo︢R is a little street food outlet at Freshwater Beach in South Pembrokeshire. Serving up delicacies including Welshman’s Caviar and Mermaid biscuits, as well as fresh crab and sea vegetables. They run all sorts of seashore foraging courses and even beach picnics. You can find out more at their website at www.beachfood.co.uk

Unlike mushroom-picking, which can have unpleasant, even fatal, consequences you’ll come to no harm with seaweed.  Although not all the varieties are tasty, none will do you any harm.

Top Tips for Foraging your own Seaweed

  1. Look for a remote stretch of coast that is far from sewerage outfall buoys & mouths of estuaries should be avoided
  2. Look for healthy looking plants that are still attached to the rocks
  3. Never collect washed-up or floating seaweed as it can have started to decompose and could be toxic
  4. Take a pair of good, sharp scissors with you as they can be good for snipping off the top section of the plant
  5. Only take what you need
  6. Take a small bucket or bag – I find a bucket is best as it prevents seawater leakage on the way home
  7. Once collected it will need washing in clean, fresh water at least three times before cooking
  8. With the exception of lava seaweed most seaweed only needs light steaming

Seren’s Guide to Seaweeds to forage for around Britain

Pelvetia (channel wrack)

  • Leafy, fronded algae that holds its finger shape when “cooked” – to prepare, simply rinse through with boiling water and serve as an alternative to cabbage.

Broad kelp

  • A thick and meaty variety that looks like pasta ribbons and requires soaking to reduce its salt content, and a thorough boiling to make it edible. Great as a stand-alone side vegetable, chopped into chunks in soups, or baked in a very hot oven into delicious crispy strips.

Purple laver

  • With a distinctive flavour like olives and oysters, this smooth and fine variety boils down to a dark green pulp – perfect for making into laver bread, the traditional Welsh dish.

Sea lettuce

  • Bright green algae found in rock pools. With a strong flavour similar to sorrel, it can be added to salads, or pressed and dried into crispy green sheets used to wrap Japanese nori rolls.

Cordia filia (sea spaghetti)

  • Grows in billowing strands in deep waters, so you’ll need more than a snorkel to harvest your own! When boiled, it has a crispy bite and the texture of beansprouts. It’s green, slimy and something few of us would consider putting in our mouths. But, following a string of recent scientific studies into the benefits of seaweed, it could soon be replacing superfood side-dishes such as kale and broccoli.

With seaweed being excellent for your mind, body and even your skin; there is no better time to eat up your greens. So get some seaweed on the dining table and explore the different varieties and health-giving properties.

Next time we’ll be exploring the Welsh legacy of designer Laura Ashley, the historic town of Machynlleth and the beautiful Llangoed Hall near Brecon, where we’ll find out what makes a Welsh afternoon tea so special.