On a visit to Galway, I ticked off several items from my Ireland bucket list. Listening to live Irish music while enjoying a creamy Guinness: Check. Driving though undulating green hills flecked with sheep: Check. Exploring castle ruins around every bend: Check. Munching on a salad of freshly foraged seaweed: Ch… What? On the rocky shores near Galway, that’s exactly what I did, and I’m not the only visitor who loved it.
A Growing Appreciation for Seaweed
On a windy, overcast day, Sinead O’Brien met me in front of the office of Mungo Murphy’s Seaweed Co., the seaweed and abalone farm she runs with her mother, Cindy, in the coastal Connemara town of Rossaveel, about 40 minutes from downtown Galway. The pair offers tours of their operation, plus a chance to forage for the numerous species of seaweed that grow along the rocky beach just feet from their office. Sinead attributes the growing interest in experiences such as this to people becoming more knowledgeable about the benefits of seaweed. She also feels that, in general, people are “more adventurous when it comes to tasting new things.”
As a smattering of sprinkles began to fall, Sinead suggested we start our visit in the greenhouse to wait out the rain before heading to the beach. As I entered the warm, plastic-wrapped structure, I had expected to be surrounded with a briny, low-tide atmosphere, but instead, I found the air only lightly salty and fresh. Bright blue tanks and troughs, crisscrossed by light blue water pipes, filled the space, and the sound of water trickling and bubbling gave the room an aquarium vibe. A small group of university students from Norway were tending to one of the tanks near the rear of the greenhouse.
As I walked around and between the tanks—some with thick ribbons of kelp rising the bottom, others filled with intertwined strands of sea spaghetti—Sinead explained that the seaweed-growing part of their business was initially second to raising abalone, which they sell to the Chinese and European markets. When she and Cindy first founded the farm in 2007, they would harvest kelp washed up on shore after storms to feed to abalone. “This was torture and terribly inefficient,” she says.
After learning more about seaweed, she “started to look at it differently, as a food rather than simply a feed for the abalone.” The family began researching and experimenting with wild seaweed to determine which ones they could cultivate well in their land-based aquatic farm. Today, they grow several types of seaweed—sea lettuce, velvet horn, sargassum, and kelp—which thrive in both the nutrient-rich outflow water from the abalone tanks and the symbiosis between the native creatures, such as sea cucumbers and urchins, that live in the tanks. Though some of what they grow still is earmarked for the abalone, they also supply fresh kelp, samphire, and sargassum to Irish and UK restaurants. The tours, offered through their own website, as well as through other trip-planning sites, such as Airbnb, Traveling Spoon, and Find Your Food Adventure, have brought in visitors from around the world.
Mungo Murphy Co. Seaweed & Abalone Farm Tasting Tour, $54 on Airbnb
You can visit too and see it for yourself.
A Taste of the Emerald Isle
The rain had passed, so we ventured out of the greenhouse and picked our way down a rocky path to the shoreline. Rocks draped with dried, black seaweed surrounded tidal pools filled with small fish darting around bright green sea lettuce. Sinead bent down to pluck a few pieces for us to sample. The cold, briny leaves still had a slight crunch, despite having been submerged for hours. A few steps away, we found some pepper dulse. A small leaf of this brownish-purple seaweed imparted none of the saltiness of the others we tried; instead, a slight black-pepper spiciness filled my mouth. As we walked through the rocks and pools, Sinead pointed out several other edible species, which whetted my appetite, so we headed back to the greenhouse to try some dishes Cindy and Sinead had made.
A steaming dish of broth with channel wrack and scallion warmed us up after spending time in the chilly ocean breeze. Next, an Asian-inspired seaweed salad, with more channel wrack, velvet horn, and carrot slivers was a savory, crisp treat. Sinead and Cindy also prepared a platter of abalone and sea cucumber, both raw and sautéed, so I could see which I preferred. (For the record, sautéed with garlic is the way to go on both counts!)
The history of seaweed as food—both for people and livestock—in Ireland is long. “Coastal people would have consumed carrageen moss pudding as a traditional day-to-day food,” Sinead explains. Dried dillisk—Irish for dulse—was given to children, sheep, and cattle to eat as a salty snack that also served as a deworming treatment.
Sinead did not grow up eating seaweed the traditional Irish way. When she did set out to discover which seaweeds were tasty and nutritious, she consulted with Cindy, a California-born marine biologist by trade, as well as online resources. “Discovering that there are no known poisonous seaweeds gave me the freedom to try everything,” Sinead says.
Who Is Mungo Murphy?
Before leaving, I had to ask the burning question I had had since discovering this tour on Airbnb Experiences: Who is Mungo Murphy? Sinead laughed and confessed to inventing him for a short story. “I was writing about a rugged aquaculture farmer in Connemara when I realized that I was describing the male, Irish version of my mom, so I thought he would be a cool mascot for the farm.” Her husband drew the image, with Sinead’s direction: “Mungo had to have hair like Rembrandt, a hat like Steve Zissou or Jacques Cousteau, and a ruggedly handsome face, and he needed to be wearing an Aran jumper!”
Header image courtesy of Pamela Hunt