Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Meet Prannie Rhatigan, a lady with a mission.

People can be so inspiring, can't they?

This is what I found myself thinking when I spoke to Prannie Rhatigan (great name, right?) a short time ago.

Prannie lives in Sligo and is the author of a wonderful book called 'The Irish Seaweed Kitchen'. With this book, she is hoping to revive the age-old Irish tradition of seaweed harvesting. You may have thought the Japanese were the world's most passionate fans of seaweed but for generations, Irish people used to comb our shorelines for edible seaweeds such as carrageen, sea spaghetti and duileasc.

It was Prannie's father who taught her all she knows about seaweed. He would bring her to the beach to collect seaweed; starting with sleabhac (the traditional Irish name for nori, also known as sloke and laver) after the first frosts of Christmas and continuing throughout the year with alaria, kelp and many other types of seaweed.

She has fond memories of this time. "It was always great fun," she remembers. "Even as kids, there was a tremendous satisfation in careful harvesting, watching the purple-black glistening prize slowly fill the basins. Before the winter evening closed in, we piled back into the car, chugged and bumped up the track to the main road and into the village, where we drew to a halt outside the door of my father's favourite public house; bearers of great treasure. In we trooped and very soon, my father was benignly dispensing little portions in bags to old men in big overcoats who normally huddled over a pint but now became animated at the thought of fresh sleabhac."

However, even when Prannie was a child, the practice of harvesting seaweed was dying away. "By the 1970s, we were among the very few families who harvested from the shore," she says. "I think folk memory still associated it with extreme poverty and the famine."

Her passion for seaweed never abated and she has since become something of an expert in sourcing, identifying, preparing and cooking it. So much of an expert that her family and friends urged her to write this book.

They love my seaweed recipes and kept telling me I should write them down before the knowledge was lost," says Prannie. "So, I finally did."

The result is a book that features 150 recipes covering everything from soup to sushi by way of beetroot and sea lettuce salad and even chocolate and seaweed cake. Most of the recipes are Prannie's own. Others come from her family and friends. And still more come from well-known chefs and cooks such as Darina and Myrtle Allen, Richard Corrigan, Rick Stein and Alice Waters.
But this book is much more than simply a collection of recipes. In it, Prannie captures many of the traditions and folklore associated with seaweed. She tells her readers how the Brehon Laws of the 5th century mention duileasc as a condiment to be served with bread, whey milk and butter (I, for one, would love to try this!). She talks about a survey carried out in Connemara in 1938 which found that the local people ate 32 different types of seaweed.

Prannie also informs her readers about how to source, identify, prepare and store seaweed. She does this because she really wants them to go down to the shoreline and pick some for themselves. "Seaweeds are tasty, healthy and nutritious," she says. "I've always known this but now I really want to pass it on to others. I want everyone to realise just what a living treasure we have on our shores."

She has me convinced. I'm planning to harvest some seaweed the next time we have a new or full moon (the best times to do so, apparently).

Even more excitingly, I'm planning to cook with it. Depending on what type of seaweed I find, I might try seaweed crepes with prawns, laver bread cakes with duileasc or Rick Stein's recipe for black bream steamed over seaweed with a fennel butter sauce.

Seriously yum.

If any of you have cooked with seaweed and have any recipes or advice to share, I'd love to hear all about it.

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