Sunday, 7 September 2014

An Appetite for Arsenic


I was asked if I worried about my arsenic intake due to the amount of seaweed that I eat. It was one of those supermarket aisle conversations, nevertheless it stopped me in my tracks. What I should have cited was seaweed eating sheep. On North Ronaldsay, the most northern Island of the Orkney Archipelago, the sheep graze on seaweed for most months of the year.  During lambing the ewes feed on grass. They dine on brown seaweed, mostly the wracks and kelps, oar weed, forest kelp and furbellows - the Laminaria spp. At low tide the sheep can pick their own, otherwise they eat storm cast seaweed. Studies on the arsenic concentration in the tissue and wool of North Ronaldsay sheep is considerably higher than for non exposed sheep, but does not reach the maximum allowed arsenic levels in UK foodstuffs guidelines. In fact there are no reports of arsenic poisoning from seaweed.

On South Uist the sheep often wander down to the beach, and so, cooking rack of lamb with  a seaweed crust isn’t rocket science. Dulse works particularly well with the addition of the wild thyme or the invasive Rosa rugosa petal. This is a wonderful fusion of Hebridean and Middle Eastern flavours.
I am a great believer of cooking with wild plants that grow in close proximity to where the animals graze. Venison works well with blueberries, juniper berries, brambles, and wild thyme.  Rather along the lines of if 'it grows together, it goes together.' In the Western Isles, deer wander down to the beach and eat seaweed, so I often add sugar kelp to a venison casserole. As for leftover carrageen gel (ubiquitously used to make blancmange style, Irish moss pudding), I add it to thicken and give shine to stews and soups.
 Research at Hallam, Sheffield University suggests that seaweed added to wholemeal bread aids its shelf life. Alas my seaweed sourdough doesn’t hang around long enough to put this evidence based research to the test. My book on cooking with seaweed will be published as a part of Prospect Books' The English Kitchen series, which in the year of a Scottish independence referendum is pointed. Meanwhile Scotland boasts a resurgence in its kelp industry,  and in Wales, The Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company was awarded a BBC and Farming award. Seaweed has a West Countryhistory and revival too, and in the Channel Isles vraic is back on the menu. Seaweed is freely available through out the British Isles - When the tide is out the table is laid.