Norman Tucker is a one-man national industry. He spends half his working life down by the sea and the rest of it making strange straining noises in the bathroom of his home in Appledore, North Devon. Tucker, 56, the son of a fisherman, is England's last remaining professional laver gatherer. He collects and sells seaweed for a living. He knows where to find the stuff and pays tax on it. He is keen to spread the word and encourage visitors to take up the West Country's version of truffle hunting.
"This year was a bumper harvest. I picked up three tons of the stuff. I know where and when to find it around Duckpool Bay, the rocks of Croyde, Buck's Mills, Peppercombe and Westward Ho!, but I am having to go down to Padstow in Cornwall more now. Other people who pick it for themselves for a bit of extra pocket money are struggling. It has been over-picked. Amateurs wrench it out by the roots and kill it. Brent Geese are grazing on the laver beds, too. But it is a pleasant pastime if you do it right."
Mr Tucker began picking seaweed professionally 14 years ago. Previously he worked on the local gravel boats. "I can remember gathering the Hanging Black as a boy. You could pick 40lb in a day. It is easiest to pick after rain. It fluffs up like wool." Picked off the rocks between tide marks at low tide, from September until the end of March, the laver (pronounced like tennis star Rod Laver ) is hand-washed in a bath. "I rinse it out a dozen times to get rid of the sand and the hoppers. Then, I boil it up with a bit of pepper and my secret-formula spicy vinegar for 10 hours. Then I blend it. In my Dad's day they shred it with an old sausage mincer."
Laver is on everyone's lips in Barnstaple. Algae is a good conversation gambit in the pubs and hotels. Asking about seaweed is the way a lot of locals like a conversation to start. They will tell you that in the wild it looks like a balloon which has just burst. They will proudly boast that 500lb of seaweed is sold every week in Barnstaple and it keeps for a week in a fridge and forever in a freezer. Ask them nicely and they will be only too delighted to teach you the difference between Sea Lettuce and Saw-toothed Fucus and enable you to tell your Peacock Weed from your Bulbous-rotted Kelp. Ask them even more nicely and they will lead you down to the seashore and show off their Sea Thongs.
"Since the advent of freezers, seaweed collecting is not so intensive. It has become a leisure activity. A good excuse for a walk," says local historian and tourist office manager Tom Evans. "In Victorian days it was commonplace and laver patties used to be taken out to sea by the sailors and fishermen of Appledore. Wholesome, organic and cheap, it has been the staple diet of people living and working in the area for centuries. Local housewives still pick and prepare it and give it as presents in tubs. Everyone has their own recipes and personal preferences."
Traditionally, it is eaten for breakfast cooked in bacon fat. A fried egg is broken over it. It is served as the traditional accompaniment to Hog's Pudding, the local white sausage. "It should be green-black, very runny and have a sheen to it," says Bruce Woolacombe, proprietor of the Commodore Hotel in Instow. On the wall of the bar is a painting depicting laver gathering at the turn of the century. Women carried it home in baskets, balanced on their heads. "We are the only hotel and restaurant in the area which has laver on the menu. You can even have it from room service. It is heavenly stuff and very good for you. I love a dollop with a pasty. Real connoisseurs can tell you where it has come from by the feel of the air-bladders, the colour of the sand and the tang. Norman Tucker's laver is unmistakable." I had it for breakfast. It tastes like pureed seaweed with a dash of axle grease.
The butchers and fishmongers in Barnstaple's historic Butchers Row, which once totalled 44 meat shops, all stock laver. It is sold at pounds 1.49 per pound, washed and cooked. "The more adventurous-minded holidaymakers go for it," says Peter Ellis of Massey and Son, a local delicatessen. "I love it in bubble and squeak."
Rich in iodine and allegedly containing 52 different minerals, seaweed is calorie-free. It is used in the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism and constipation. In 1952, Edinburgh hosted the first International Seaweed Symposium, where ways to reap the maximum benefits from the abundant sea crop were discussed. There are many. It is now used to make everything from toast racks, slimming agents, surgical gauzes, fireproof curtains and soundproofing. Dentists use a soluble wool made from seaweed to staunch profuse bleeding.
But, while it is popular in Japan and France, seaweed's gastronomic potential has been tapped only parochially in the UK. It remains under-rated and under-used, although as far back as the 1870s a correspondent for the Times believed laver could become as famous a culinary delicacy as "the truffles of Perigueux". There are around 800 known types of seaweed. The type found along the Atlantic and Bristol Channel coastlines is called Porphyra. In Wales, it is red and made into bread. The Irish freeze-dry it, sprinkle it with sugar and sell it as dulse.
There is no organised commercial harvesting. Tesco stocks seaweed in some of its stores, but it is from Brittany. Other specialist shops stock Hebridean seaweed, but Barnstaple believes it offers the highest haute cuisine experience. Robert King, the chef at The Commodore offers quenelles on a bed of laver with anchovy sauce. One enterprising local fish and chip shop, Mr P's, offers a battered version. West Country seaweed also makes a novelty souvenir, memento or gift. Visit Barnstaple and bring back some sludge for a friend.
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