Given that Britain has a 7,000 mile coastline and all seaweeds are edible to some degree, it is surprising that as a nation, the British just don’t eat seaweed. While the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans put these marine plants on a pedestal, at best we generally regard is as low-grade organic fertiliser.
The closest to exception to this rule is laver (Porphyra umbilicalis) but even this is probably one of our most geographically localised foods. And it is inextricably mixed up with the heritage of South Wales’s industrial heritage.
This is a very thin delicate seaweed which is present along the Welsh coast where it generally grows around the low-tide mark. That said, Pembrokeshire is particularly famous for laver and in particular the spectacular beach at Freshwater West. It is essentially the same as the Japanese nori. This is the vital papery seaweed which wrapped around rolls of flavoured sticky rice to make sushi.
Welsh laver is very thin and generally purple when fresh. After processing by washing and drying, it is simmered until soft and pureed or chopped to produce a soft greenish black porridge. Some chefs compare its delicate flavor to oysters and fresh sea air, while others swear that, like fine wine, its geographical origin and the season when it was harvested are reflected in the end product.
The best crops are supposed to be autumn- or spring-picked – and the clean waters of the Pembrokeshire and Gower peninsulas are famous for their seaweed. That said, no doubt foragers along the Lleyn Peninsula would say theirs is just as good. Having said all this, it does have to be admitted the appearance of the green-black paste requires culinary design imagination to make it appear appealing on the plate. “One of the ways of getting diners to try it is to get the front of house to talk it up,” says Paul Wenbourne, head chef at Anglesey’s Chanteau Rhianfa. “Once people are told it’s a Welsh delicacy they are more than prepared to try it.”
There are other seaweeds which have been exploited in the past. The most notable of these are probably dulse (Rhodymenia palmate) which has a delicate flavour and carrageen (Chondrus crispus) which is relatively bland, but can be used as a setting agent similar to gelatine. These are side-tracks however – without doubt Wales’s laver remains at the gastromomic pinnacle of British seaweed.
Legends suggest it was first introduced as a food to the Welsh by the Vikings, but in reality it has probably been eaten since the first Neolithic peoples walked across the land bridge from the Continent as the glaciers of the last Ice Age retreated.
Laver was first mentioned in print in William Camden’s Britannia (published in1607) where there is a description of lhawvan being gathered in spring at Eglwys Abernon: “Near St Davids, especially at Eglwys Abernon, and in many other places along the Pembrokeshire Coast, the peasantry gather in the spring time a kind of alga or seaweed, where they made a sort of food called lhavan or llawvan, in English, black butter. The seaweed is washed clean from the sand, and sweated between two tile stones. The weed is then shred small and well-kneaded, as they do dough for bread, and made up into great balls or rolls, which some eat raw, and others fry with oatmeal and butter”.
As coal mining expanded during the 18th century, lawr became a staple food of the pit workers. And in 1865 the great travel writer, George Borrow, wrote of eating a wonderful dish of “moor mutton and piping hot laver sauce”. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the trade increased. This was focussed on the Gower Peninsula and Pembrokeshire beaches such as Freshwater West near Pembroke. By the late 19th century were about 20 seaweed drying huts at the latter, each maintained by a local family. The weed was spread out in huts to dry and every Monday was sacked and labeled before being taken by cart to Pembroke. From there it went by steam train to markets in Swansea.
Collecting laver was traditionally done by women, most of whom lived in the nearby hamlet of Angle. The richest pickings came from the southern end of the beach and were gathered at low tide as the retreating sea exposed the weed-covered rocks. The women would gather the marine plants in baskets balanced on their heads before being spread out to dry in the thatched huts along the top edge of the beach. At the beginning of the 20th century there were as many as 50 gatherers, but slowly it went out of gastronomic fashion and by the 1960s there were only a dozen left. Slowly the number of drying huts on Freshwater West dwindled, but one has recently been restored as a tourist attraction.
Laver’s fall from grace is now starting to reverse. The gastronomic revolution in Wales over the past few decades has seen a revival in the seaweed’s fortunes. Traditionally, the most popular way of eating it was to roll it in oatmeal and fry in bacon fat until crisp. These little cakes are full of flavour and reminiscent of black pudding. Alternatively it could be added to the traditional Welsh ‘cawl’, the broth of lamb or mutton stock, potatoes, leeks and carrots.
The new generation of inventive Welsh chefs now use it in ‘fusion’ recipes that include lamb with laver pesto, ravioli, black risotto, dahl and drizzled over canapés. And at its simplest it is often blended with melted butter and lemon and drizzled over roast lamb or mutton. “We had a dish on our spring menu of crispy fried diced potatoes, with laverbread, samphire and crayfish,” says Chateau Rhianfa’s Wenbourne. “That went down well with guests.”
Its resurgence has also been boosted by science which has shown it is not only tasty; but positively beneficial. According to Parsons Pickles, the biggest producer of laverbread, it is the health benefits which have largely underpinned the recent increase in sales. Indeed, it has been called the ‘Welsh superfood’, because it is very low in calories, rich in protein and contains scores of minerals and trace elements, such as calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and iodine and vitamins A, B, B2, C & D. It also has proven beneficial effects on joints, mucous membranes and skin.
It seems that after years of idling in relative culinary obscurity, sneered at as a regional ‘poor man’s food’, akin to faggots or tripe, laver is set for a Welsh invasion of England and who knows, maybe the Continent too?