When I’m not out foraging I’m usually still thinking about foraging, wondering where I can find this or that delicious wild edible, wondering how best to harvest, prepare, process and store my wild finds, wondering how certain plants, fungi and seaweeds have come into cultivation whilst others have remained stubbornly and gloriously wild, wondering why certain edibles are popular in some countries and not others. Seaweed is a good example of this.
In Great Britain we are as phycophobic as we are mycophobic. That’s a great pity. Personally I’m a big fan of the briny, slimy stuff, and a deep and primitive fascination with seaweeds seems to be worked in to my DNA.
Of course, I’m not the only one. Ole Mouritsen a professor of biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark, is a distinguished cheerleader for seaweeds and the potential they hold. He sums up our phycophobic reluctance with an apt comparison. “The most important thing about getting people to use seaweed is to get people to focus on flavour. The problem is that most people associate it with something rotting on the foreshore. Suppose you had never seen apples and you see apples rotting on the ground – you would never think of eating apples. That’s the connotation most people have with seaweeds”.
I look forward to reading a translation of Ole’s new book, ‘Sushi: Food for the Eye, Body and Soul’, due to be published in English this spring, as well as his excellent looking book, Seaweed, edible, available and sustainable. (Quotes taken from Stuart Freedman’s excellent article for Effilee Magazine on the Welsh Laverbread tradition).
The fact of the matter is I love seaweeds, and I love them as much as I love solving conundrums, such as the one below…
For a number of years I’ve been a big fan of sushi, usually prepared with rice and raw marinated fish, but also purely vegetarian, vegan and, more recently, even completely raw vegan versions. Of course, what literally holds all this together is the nori sheet.
There are of course many brands of commercially and industrially produced nori sheets such as the Clearspring one above. There is no denying the excellent quality and consistency of these, and if you’ve never made sushi before then using these is a good starting place. On the other hand, several factors spurred me on to make my own. First, as I’ve indicated, there is simply the wonderful creative challenge and opportunity of working out how to do such things.
Of course, I make no claims to originality in this. Nori sheet production arose out of traditional Japanese paper making techniques and has been perfected over hundreds of years. Despite this, my attempts to find any clear instructions in books or using the internet proved entirely fruitless. All references I came across claiming to describe how to make nori sheets from scratch were either just instructions on how to prepare sushi or described the industrial process of nori sheet production. One of my wild food motivations concerns issues of sustainability, and although I benefit from the mass production and global distribution of products such as nori sheets, I feel there is something deeply disempowering about the reliance on such systems and processes. So the creative empowerment that comes from keeping traditional knowledge alive and extending it with one’s own unique contribution is a strong motivating factor for me. Finally, there is the question of choice as well as the opportunity to use locally sourced ingredients.
Traditional Japanese produced nori sheets are primarily made from only one or two different porphyra species; what we in the UK, and especially Wales, know as the common seaweed laver. In Japan, Porphra tenera and P. yezoensis are the ones most frequently used. Given that in the UK we have at least 5 different porphyra species, as well as a number of similarly textured related species, there is great potential for small scale artisan nori production from UK sourced wild seaweeds.
Just before we get on to my experiments with different seaweeds, you might be interested to see the following video that documents nori sheet production from the initial conch shell inoculation, through the growing and harvesting phase, and right through to the final packing of the processed sheets. The technology used is advanced but not ultra high tech and is certainly ingenious. In many respects I admire the ingenuity and creativity from which it sprang; ironic really as I’m currently half way through reading Technological Slavery – The Collected writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a, k, a “The Unabomber”, as well as John Zerzan’s (editor) thought provoking anthology of writings: Against Civilization.
Which Seaweed Species Are Suitable For Making Nori Sheets?
From around the shores of the British Isles there are about 20 potential candidates, even more perhaps. So far I’ve tried and been successful using the following: Ulva lactuca, U. intestinalis, U. rigida, U. linza, Porphyra linearis, P. purpurea, P. umbilicalis, Palmaria palmata, Rhizoclonium riparium, Alaria esculenta, and an unidentified Cladophora species. Indeed, the use of cladophora species is interesting in that, in Laos, sheets, coarser, but not dissimilar to the Japanese nori have traditionally been made: kháy sheets locally produced from a cladophora species that we call Laotian Mekong Weed.
What I mean precisely when mentioning being successful in making nori sheets with the species mentioned above, is that either alone or in combination with one other seaweed they make sheets with a good flavour and texture. On the other hand, the number of potential species that can be incorporated into a sheet extends to 50+ if a certain percentage of powdered edible seaweeds (that for textural reasons can’t be made into a sheet themselves) are incorporated into the nori sheet. One might do that to balance out the sheet from a nutritional perspective, a flavour point of view, or simply when playing with colour and the general aesthetics. To that end I’ve experimented quite a bit with incorporating the highly flavoured pepper dulse (Osmundea pinnatafida) and its relations into a number of sheets (as a powder), as well as Cryptopleura ramosa, Heterosiphonia plumosa, Callophyllis laciniata, Calliblepharis ciliata, Delesseria sanguinea, Hypoglossum hypoglossoides, Plocamium cartilagineum, Lomentaria articulata, Fucus serratus, Saccorhiza polyschides, Laminaria digitata, Saccharina latissima (formerly Laminaria saccharina), Sargassum muticum, Himanthalia elongata, and Codium fragile.
Before getting into my experiments, let’s take a look at some kids having more success at making nori than perhaps I do in this blog! I have done what they’re doing, as this seemed the most obvious method, but the results where disappointing (too brittle and unrollable). But it works for them so may work for you!
Of course, apart from simply lifting the seaweed off the beach and eating it (likely to lead to diarrhoea by the way due to the likely presence of E.coli), the most profoundly simple and creative use for laver requiring no cooking pots, no cooking oil, and no modern technology whatsoever, is to generate a fire-by-friction using a bow drill, create a fire pit on the beach, burn down your drift wood to create hot embers, cover with a thin layer of some other more robust seaweed to prevent scorching, place parcels of laver-wrapped fish stuffed with wild herbs on top, add another protective layer of thin wood or seaweed, cover with sand/earth/shingle and bake for 20 minutes. Delicious!
Back to seaweeds suitable for nori making…
Dulse (Palmaria palmata), flavour-wise, is my favourite seaweed of all.
Indeed, in part, it was my determination to make a nori sheet out of this that was one of the fundamental reasons for my persistence. For absolutely best results only harvest the most tender spring growth in April and May. After that, dry it and store for a year, opening the storage bag for a few hours each month to let a little moisture back in. This allows the flavour to develop as glutamate and mannitol/analine/proline (?) crystals form.
I discovered this a number of years ago after initially being disappointed that I’d not managed to keep my dulse completely dry in storage. A recent conversation with fellow forager Miles Irving about experiments with dulse at the Nordic Food Lab confirmed what I already knew: it tastes better stored ever so slightly damp. If you are using aged and slightly off crisp dulse, dry in a low oven for 10 minutes to make it dry enough to crush. Also, you’ll find that most of the amino acid salts will fall off onto the drying tray or be left in the bag. For maximum flavour, make sure you retain this and sprinkle it in as you’re making the sheet.
The photo above shows the seaweed in May at which point it is thinner and more suitable – although an April harvest is best. From June onwards although the texture is fine at that time for other cooking purposes it’s not suitable for nori sheets (at least not how I’ve described making them). I was just about to post this blog when I bumped into fellow forager Ross Evans who knows about the flavour development in aged dulse. Discussing the use of dulse in nori sheets, he stated an obvious point I was embarrassed not to have considered. That is, if you make the sheets in April or May and store (as described above) for a year, then the nori will naturally deepen and mature in flavour. Very true. Thanks Ross.
How to Make Nori Sheets from Scratch
Method 1: Raw dried, flaked & sprayed
I have a press. This is just a little bigger than A3 size and is made, with adaptions, from an old trouser press I purchased on ebay. Here’s the first method using such a press..
Incidentally, my initial reason for making this press was simply to press seaweeds to create a record of my finds. If you’ve not done this it’s well worthwhile. Pressed seaweeds are beautiful in their own right, as of course they are left in the sea. In fact, I really do believe that pressed seaweeds make inspired and inspirational art works.
What is wild food? Is it simply food? Is it medicine? Is it a work of art? Is it a life style? Perhaps it’s some or all of these things, aspects, and processes. I think that as human beings we tend to over compartmentalise, certainly I tend to. Some compartmentalisation of thought and the actions issuing from that thought may be necessary for everyday adaptive functioning in the world; on the other hand, over compartmentalisation suffocates a deeper more inclusive and reciprocal awareness and is anathema to free flowing creativity, to a deeper realisation of connectivity, and the mutual interplay between seemingly different realms of existence. Wild foods are my medicines. Wild foods are my art. I am the art of wild foods. Hence, The Foraged Book Project.
A few months ago I was contacted via email by artist James wood. We’d never met. I didn’t know him. He said,
“I was wondering if there’d be any chance, as I’m not sure what type of work you’re doing at the moment, if you would ever take on a type of apprentice to pass the knowledge you’ve collected on foraging food over to? And, if yes, whether that apprentice could be me, obviously we would need more contact first but it’s something to think about.”
I get a fair number of emails like this. In fact, I love emails like this as I’m all for connecting and sharing with others. And yet, in the past 2 years after responding positively to such emails, all of these people have completely wasted my time by not showing up. Sadly, although I would like to reply courteously and positively to everybody irrespective of my negative past experience, in the past few months I’d decided enough is enough, and would have told James that I was far too busy. But how could I resist his further explanation:
“I’m currently studying on my third year of a Fine Art BA at Nottingham Trent University. Over the past two years I’ve been trying to make my own organic pigments and paper from locally foraged materials. I’ve managed to get the three primary colours from local privet fruit – purple/blue, Spindle Tree – yellow and cleaver roots for red. There’s also a black and white among other colours which can be used with egg yolk to create a suitable paint. I’m not sure how interesting you may find this but I thought it would be good to give you a bit of back ground.”
Of course, given that I’ve been making paper from various fungi for a number of years and have enthusiastically dabbled and doodled with pollen and spore paints (below), these words were music to my ears. For the first time ever I found myself sending a first email to somebody I’d never met or spoken to enthusiastically suggesting that we should make a book together, now! Arts Council funding awaits, fingers crossed. The aim is to produce a wild food book made entirely from natural foraged materials, with the text
and illustrations created using plant dyes, pollens and fungal spores. Artist Julia Groves, and perhaps Tasha Aulls are collaborating too. Please check out The Foraged Book Project and get in touch if this interests you.
How To Make Nori-Style Sheets From Scratch (a quick diversion – just in case we haven’t had enough of them already and because life isn’t all about seaweed….or is it…..)?
Technically nori refers only to seaweed. However, I realized that once a technique is mastered – or at leastlearnt; I’m a long way from mastery! – Why not play with it? Why not use it in unexpected but worthwhile ways? To that end I wondered what other wild and flavoursome foods could be used. The most obvious candidate was the Winter Chanterelle fungi (Cantharellus tubaeformis) I’d picked at the end of December, although I had my doubts – that proved right, that they would not be flakeable in either a fresh or dried state. Blitzing them up fresh resulted in a lumpy unspreadable mass. Drying them raw or cooked and then attempting to flake them resulted in a brown (from raw) or black (from cooked) powder with numerous hard granular bits. However, I did devise a method that makes superb and delicious semi-dry sheets.
For the most part, when I think about drying wild leaves it’s usually because I’m planning to store them to make drinks. Leaves, though, as a wrap or finely chopped external covering do definitely have a place in wild and not so wild cuisine. Think of the nettle used on the outside of Cornish Yarg cheese, vine leaves as a wrap for both sweet and savoury items in Greek cuisine, and over the years I’ve used all sorts of wild leaves both raw and cooked to wrap various foods. Nevertheless, even given my experience, the thought of flaked and dried leaves to make sushi didn’t have much appeal until, that is, I discovered the incredible flavours of lacto-fermented/krauted wild greens. Over the past few years I’ve been experimenting a great deal with wild leaf ferments. Plants with a robust flavour seem to work best, so many members of the cabbage family work really well, as do such taste sensations as alexanders or the seriously pungent ramsons/wild garlic. The latter is so good that over the Christmas period whilst doing all this experimentation I ran out of my own supply.
As good fortune would have it my friend and fellow born-to-be-wild forager Miles Irving of Forager only lives a few minutes’ walk up the road, and his base of operations is just down the hill. Quite some time ago I’d been enthusing to him about lacto-fermenting wild greens and getting him to taste some of mine. This must have left a good impression because what I hadn’t realised until about a month ago, is that rather than making small batches in 1kg jars as I’d been doing, he’d began making leaf ferments in 40 litre barrels. Another difference was that whereas mine were quite complex involving balancing out the flavours with other grated vegetables, his were simplicity itself: leaves and salt. I popped down to his workshop and he gave me 1kg of his lacto-fermented wild garlic leaves. Thanks Miles! Absolutely delicious! In spite of writing a somewhat elaborate blog about making your own nori sheets, sometimes, much of the time, simplicity is the best approach.
So did it work; was it a success?
What I came to realize years ago in working with wild foods, and in life generally, is that to be too caught up in the desire for a preconceived successful outcome, and certainly one that can blind to other possibilities, can lead to missing new opportunities and making new discoveries.
In a sense then the answer is both “yes” and “no”. It wasn’t entirely successful in terms of my initial intention, and as a result I wasn’t able to make a nori-style sheet from dried and flaked leaves.
However, when after 3 days in the press I tipped out the dry material that hadn’t congealed, I didn’t throw it away but instead dried and ground it down further. It makes a wonderful seasoning on its own or mixed with flour. This is something I’d not even considered before. Next, because I’d not been able to make a sheet from dried and flaked material, I thought I’d just build up a sheet from the fresh lacto-fermented leaves. To do that it was useful to initially squeeze out as much liquid as possible. The discovery here is that the liquid alone is absolutely delicious and could stand as a worthy liquid condiment in its own right. I drank the whole glass.
Also this liquid extract is going to be fabulous to experiment with in various liquid condiments I’ve been making with tasty seaweed and mushroom extracts. In terms of the finished dry sheet made from the fresh leaf ferment, it did hold together well. On the other hand, drying it completely did somewhat toughen it. This doesn’t mean you can’t make and store them, only that if you want to use them for sushi then you need to make the roll the day before then leave it wrapped in cling-film or similar in the fridge over night. That re-softens the leaf sheet. Nevertheless, similar to working with the fungi sheet, I found that for absolutely best results, the sheet should be built up from fresh lacto-fermented leaves, pressed for 12 hours and then used immediately. At that stage, it holds together well, the texture is still good, and it’s very easy to handle.
Back on topic
Back on the topic of nori sheets genuinely made from seaweed for a second; what I forgot to mention was how delicious a sheet made from lacto-fermented Ulva intestinalis was. The jar shown below is one I took on a course I was running for a group of 8 chefs. It has been fermenting for over a year and the flavour is delicious (in my opinion), but completely divided the chefs. Half loved it and half loathed it.
Pickled rose petals
Pickled rose petals, in this case Japanese Rose (Rosa rugosa), are one of those fantastically versatile ingredients that can happily complement and enliven both sweet and savoury dishes.
That I’ve not pickled rose petals before is something I find very strange. After all, I’ve dabbled in pickling almost every other wild food to the point of absurdity.
Perhaps the main reason is that all the petals I’ve gathered have been dried and powdered, finding their way into spice mixes or into cakes, biscuits and desserts, or have found their way into drinks such as sweetened rose petal vodka (below).
Having only a limited supply of pickled rose petals for this experiment, and learning from the experience of trying to make nori-style sheets from both fungi and lacto-fermented wild greens, I thought I’d skip (for now) the attempt to dry and flake the pickled rose petals and go straight for a semi-dry sheet made with the fresh pickle.
For those of you that have tasted the profound benefits of a regular meditation practice but, like me, for some inexplicable reason, have lapsed and now find it difficult to incorporate into life on a regular and formal basis, making pickled rose petal sheets is for you! I’m playfully very serious.
Of all the nori sheet experiments described in this blog, making this one had the potential to be the most slow and frustrating. Indeed, it was the slowest. In the first place, all the petals as they come out of the jar are all scrunched up and need to be individually smoothed out. Secondly, I had thought that one layer of petals would work but that a thicker and therefore more robust sheet would be easier to handle as well as being more flavoursome (turned out that, surprisingly, one layer was perfect). As a result it took 1 1/2 hours just to lay out two sheet, one with a single layer of petals, the other with two. Normally in such situations I’d be pulling my hair out in frustration after 10 minutes. And yet, the spirit of the rose is so beautifully calming, so serene, so gentle, so loving. Breathing out, I picked a petal from the pile, breathing in, I unfurled it, breathing out, I lay it down, breathing in, I paused before breathing out and reaching for the next petal and entered a timeless realm…
After 12 hours
Just reflecting for a few minutes, I can think of all sorts of creative dishes this could be used in, not having tried any of them yet though I will remain silent until I can speak from experience…
After 4 days.
You may be familiar with fruit leathers? These essentially, at their simplest, are thin layers of 100% flexible fruit pulp dried in thin sheets to exclude all moisture – although with a low sugar content they can be somewhat brittle. Made very thin they have great potential for artistic wrappings in meat dishes and, more obviously, desserts.
Now, you might be thinking this is too great a departure from Nori or Nori-style sheets to be included here, that I’ve gone mad, and that even when I wrap up to stay dry by putting on my coat to go out in the rain, I say to my girl friend, “hang on a second I’ve just got to put on my Nori sheet!” Yes, you’d be right; every wrapping can’t be classified as a Nori or Nori-style sheet. However, in recent years I’ve got into candying various seaweeds, after coming across some decent looking recipes in a number of books written by people who didn’t look or sound like they’d lost their minds. Also, I’m quite obsessed with candying.
That, combined with the fact that I’m always looking at new ways to incorporate seaweeds into my diet, made me think about incorporating candied (or uncandied) seaweeds into fruit leathers. Then, of course, we will have a sheet incorporating flaked seaweed and can call it Nori to our heart’s content.
I only had this thought yesterday so haven’t had the opportunity to try it yet. The good news for me, and anybody who might like to try, is that right now in January it’s possible to make my two absolutely favourite fruit leathers: rose hip, and strawberry tree fruit.
Rose hip fruit leather is amazing (provided you don’t pick fermenting ones – they’re usually a weird orange colour or, when you squeeze them, liquid is the first thing to ooze out rather than pulp). Simply boil up the hips in water, mash, strain and reduce down the liquid. Transfer to a nonstick sheet and dry further. The result, although wonderfully flexible due to the high sugar content, looks amazingly like stained glass, having the taste and texture of fruit pastels. My plan is to mix in powdered seaweed or ground candied seaweed after the final boiling.
Strawberry Tree fruit are fantastic. The species part of the botanical name for the plant, Arbutus unedo, means “I eat one only”. This is obvious really, because after eating only one, you’ll immediately be thinking what a fantastic fruit leather it will make, so will be too busy gathering to eat any more.
The flavour is the nearest you’ll get to tropical fruit from something you’ve harvested in the UK. Imagine a cross between mango, papaya and persimon. This is not obvious from eating the fresh fruit. Coincidentally, I’ve just noticed that one of my favourite wild food bloggers, Jonathan Hamnet – who emailed me a couple of days ago with generous words of encouragement – has some interesting things to say about this fruit’s inclusion in a fruit leather: Trail Food from the Golden Age of Man.
So far we’ve looked at the use of seaweeds, fungi, lacto-fermented wild leaves, fruit leathers and pickled rose petals as suitable for making Nori or Nori-type sheets, but we haven’t yet considered anything really wacky. A short time ago a Facebook friend and fellow forager Sally Harte posted a picture on line of some small green slimy thing asking what it was. I said it looked like some kind of horrible cyanobacteria. Why ‘horrible’ I don’t know? A little further research by Sally revealed it to be a type of cyanobacteria known as Nostoc commune. Given that I see this quite frequently, coupled with the fact that, according to the Wikipedia link, it is eaten in Japan, China, Indonesia and the Philippines, I rushed out to the nearest spot I know where it grows in profusion. Alas, none was there. I’m sure this would make a great Nori-style sheet so can’t wait for it to start growing again.
Nori sheets from scratch (Method 2)
The wet paper-making way using dried and flaked and then cooked seaweed.
Given that this method is closer to the traditional way of making paper, a technique out of which nori sheet creation arose, the results were very disappointing. Compared to method 1, in this instance, I found it so much harder to produce a nori sheet of even thickness. Also, in spite of being well pressed down, the sheets made in this way still tended to crack whilst drying. On reflection I think this may not be due to any inherent problem with the technique but, rather, due to my inappropriate application of it. Specifically, whereas when using the first method I made sheets that were of the fairly small traditional size, for the paper method I leapt up about 4 sizes to A3 size. That fact, combined with the issue of my water tray not being quite deep enough, I think, led to all the problems encountered. More experimentation required using a smaller sized paper deckle…………
An aside: I got hold of a super impressive microphone not with a view to narrating these stop-frame videos, but to support and publicise my friend Mark Boyle’s excellent recently published book The Moneyless Manifesto through creating a free on-line audio version of the book. I was rather blasé about the ease of doing this, especially when he told me an actor audio-booked his first book. “Who needs actors”, I said! Given that it took me about 4 attempts to narrate each of these videos I’m now laughing at my, at best, naive optimism, at worst, misplaced arrogance. But, I will still try to do it…….. In the meantime the book can be purchased or read for free at: http://www.moneylessmanifesto.org/ (I contributed a short article on making leaf curd).
Here’s a recipe for some Sushi I compiled using some of the preparations discussed above:
I started this blog with a quote from lovely fellow forager Rachel Lambert, suggesting that: “Life is too short to try and work out how to make nori sheets from scratch!” Well, there’s a long debate to be had there. In some respects though she may well be right. Nevertheless, for me what’s important isn’t so much the goal as the journey; living each moment of that journey intensely, creatively, playfully, and with a full awareness of the possibilities of any given moment along the way – actually I’m sure Rachel would agree too. It ain’t easy!
I want to finish with a quote too, about another journey. Quotes or discussions with people that suggest something can’t be done or isn’t worth doing, I find act as a great stimulus to action.
Writing In Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2004: Wild Food, Susan Campbell claimed not to have
“met anyone who could convince [her] that modern man could subsist on wild food alone, legally or illegally, the year round, in a northern climate.”– from The Hunting and Gathering of Wild Foods: What’s the Point? An Historical Survey.
Beginning later in the year, April or May, I intend to try and convince her, and myself, that it is in fact possible to live entirely on wild food the year round in a Northern climate. I’ll be writing more about that project in the next blog.
I hope I can count on your support because I can’t do it alone……………….