Seaweeds have been eaten by the seafaring peoples of Britain and Ireland for countless centuries. Below are the main varieties:
- Porphyra umbilicalis, Porphyra laciniata, and Ulva lactuca.
These related seaweeds are essentially the same as Japanese nori, and go by two different names:
- Laver is perhaps the best known of the traditional native words for this food. The name is attested in the sense of "edible seaweed" since the 17th century, although it is seen referring to indeterminate water plants long before that. Its best-known native preparation is Welsh laverbread.
- Another native English and British name for laver is sloak (with many regional spellings attributed to the Scots and Irish - sloke, slake, slawk, and so on).
Laver is a word of Latin origin; sloak is related to Irish slabhac and related forms.
This is the second most important edible British/Irish seaweed, known as dulse. The name comes from Celtic; compare Irish duileasg "leaf" + "water". (The Celtic word for "water" also survives in English in the word whisky.) Dulse is reddish purple and has a beautifully delicate flavor.
Alaria esculenta .
This dark, tough frond is often compared to Japanese wakame. Henware and badderlocks are its main native English names. The root ware, used as a word by itself regionally and in "seaware", is common in Germanic words for seaweed.
The usual English names are Carrageen, carragheen, or Irish moss, and has also been called "Carraghan moss". It has little flavor of its own and now has uses mostly as the food additive carrageenan, but in the early 19th century it saved many lives as a famine food. It is named after an Irish town near Waterford.
More general names for edible seaweeds have been sea-liverwort, and sea-lettuce, and there are doubtless others.
Seaweeds have also been used extensively as fertilizer and for fuel, going by names such as sea-wrack, sea woad, sea ore, mermaid's hair, thread-tangle, and so on. Kelp (Japanese kombu) is today the best known of the large fuel-seaweeds. The name "kelp" refers to several different plants, and it does not seem to have been eaten in traditional Britain. Its etymology, though ancient, is uncertain.
Mainstream English and French cuisine have not traditionally valued seaweeds - dulse is associated with Ireland and Scotland, while laver is considered Welsh. Here is our friend Prosper Montagné (1865-1948), writing in the Larousse gastronomique:
Sea wrack, rock-weed. ... It is said that the inhabitants of Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Scotland, Norway, Denmark and North America use it for food. It is, however, only eaten in times of scarcity, except in Scotland, where the young stems of the tangle or sea-lettuce are sometimes eaten as a salad. This dish, however, has not found much favour with any visitors who have tasted it.
One can forgive the French; they know not what they do. But for the English, perhaps it will only take a little more contact with the "other" sceptered isle to reacquaint their palates with these native British foods