Piles of seaweed thrown up by winter storms can add new elements to the forager’s basket
If you’re not a Gaelic-speaker, you might never have heard the word brùchd. If so, I want to teach it to you, because our shorelines during the winter can provide brùchdan (the plural form) which are potential treasure troves for the forager and keen gardener. In general terms, the word (pronounced ‘BROOCHK’ with a long ‘oo’) refers to a sudden rushing forth or bursting out, and the results of that process. It can mean ‘belching’ with reference to humans. In an environmental context, it is commonly used for the piles of seaweed that are thrown up on the shore, sometimes in vast quantities, usually during the season of storms in autumn and winter.
On our coasts, and particularly in the machair-fringed areas of the Western Isles, the brùchd was, and still is, eagerly awaited by those who use seaweed to fertilise their land. With a brùchd, there is no need to cut the seaware – it arrives ready for collection and spreading. Sometimes the weed needs to be collected immediately in case the next tide removes a lot of what has just accumulated. But where a big storm and high tide throw it up to the highest part of the beach, beyond the next tide, it is known as a tiùrr-brùchd or brùchd tiùrra (tiùrr being the Gaelic for ‘tideline’). If it is allowed to rot there for a while, it turns dark and becomes a brùchd-dubh ‘black brùchd’. The brùchd was so valued by the people that there is even a place named for it – Geodha na Brùchd ‘the inlet of the brùchd’ on the east coast of the Isle of Lewis at NB369085 (in an area where nobody lives today).
I want to discuss how the forager might make use of a brùchd. For a start, it is important not to allow it to reach the status of a brùchd-dubh! Indeed, the forager should go down to the beach shortly after a storm to inspect what has been deposited. Quite often, the seaweeds found there will be those readily available on a shoreline down to the low tide line, notably glasag ‘sea lettuce’, glasag chaolanach ‘gutweed’, propach ‘bladder wrack’, feamainn bhuilgeanach ‘knotted wrack’ and stamh ‘oarweed’.
As foragers, we need not concern ourselves too much with those species. The delicious sea lettuce and gutweed, for example, can be more profitably and carefully collected as living specimens at low tide. However, I would like to make mention of two ‘treasures’ – large brown algae – that can come ashore with a brùchd and which might otherwise only be available to the wader, swimmer or diver who is prepared to brave the waters below the low tide mark.
The first is mircean, also known in Gaelic as meilcean, gruaigean and muirinean. In English it is badderlocks, dabberlocks or winged kelp. Well known as an edible species, it has a long history of use in Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. The fronds are long and fine, almost feathery in texture, with a distinct cnàimh or midrib. The Gaels would traditionally chew on the fresh midrib, and it was considered a delicacy by children. Imagine that!
Smoked fronds are reckoned very tasty, and the sweetness of the plant to the palate increases as the plant ages. Mircean was, and no doubt is, most loved among the Gaels for its sporophylls – short spore-bearing sprouts near the base of the plant, close to the holdfast that anchors it to rocks. These appear rather like small, leathery leaves and are known in Gaelic collectively as duilleach ‘foliage’ or individually as earball-sàile ‘saltwater tail’. Their flavour, when fried in butter, is a delicious blend of nuttiness and saltiness. To top it all, this seaweed, which has been the subject of experiments to test its suitability for being raised commercially, is high in vitamins A, B, C and K.
If mircean is a pearl within a winter brùchd, then langadal is a diamond. Langadal is a kelp whose long, unribbed, slightly crinkled fronds, called leathagan in Gaelic, grow to a prodigious size. It is a deep-water species, only normally available for harvesting by divers down to depths of 30 metres – but it is often washed up in storms. The species has several Gaelic names including ròc and mìlsean-mara ‘sea sweets’. The latter has its equivalent in English names for the species – sweet kelp, sugar kelp and sweet sea-tangle – the flavour being enhanced by the presence of mannitol, a sugar alcohol. Langadal was once sold as crisps by street vendors in Edinburgh. As with mircean, langadal gets sweeter with age. As well as being tasty as crisps, it is a good addition to a stir fry, with a lovely texture and flavour, and can be cleaned, sliced and frozen for culinary use later in the season. So, when a brùchd appears on your local beach, check it out for large fronds of langadal and just cut off what you need. But a warning – the older fronds sometimes become peppered with small sgreigeagan ‘acorn barnacles’ which are not favourable to the palate – so check them out carefully in good light. And, of course, only seaweed that has been freshly washed up with the most recent tide should grace the food hamper.
If you gather too much langadal from a brùchd, don’t worry – they make a good fertilizer in the garden. They are also handy weather predictors when dried and left hanging, say, in a porch. They absorb moisture from the atmosphere, and a change in their appearance can indicate that rain is on the way.
Just to show that the entrepreneurial spirit and our native seaweeds make good bedfellows, a gin made in the Western Isles claims a unique flavour thanks to its being ‘infused with sugar kelp’. And off the coast of the island of Scalpay (southern Skye), a collaboration between commercial interests and academics is investigating the potential of growing this species adjacent to a salmon farm in order to make use of nutrient overspill. This research is aimed at the market for sweet kelp as food, but the species also has potential for being grown for biomass purposes, such as production of fuel alcohol.
The winter is often claimed to be a poor time for the food forager – when they rely on stocks they have built up during more productive seasons. But this is not true for those who have access to the seashore – and more about molluscs in another blog! It is certainly not true for those with an eye for what has been washed onto land in the latest brùchd. Nature’s bounty, indeed!
This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.