2016 is Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink. Each month the programme is focusing on a different theme and July’s focus is Rivers, Seas and Loughs. One of the stand out producers, Islander Kelp, is a family run business on Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim. They have already been the focus of a lot of attention as they are the only company in Ireland and the UK who are growing kelp for food.
Already this year owner Kate Burns and her family have been featured prominently at food events, dinners and festivals. They even hosted a German camera crew on the island for eight days of filming. Kate is quick to praise the team behind the Year of Food & Drink and the amount of effort that goes into the programme. “There’s not a week goes by that someone isn’t doing something and they’re bringing people over and there’s activities happening. It’s great for networking, it’s just super actually and I really would commend all of those who have been working on it.”
The coverage is welcome for Kate and the team as they have only been up and running for about three years. Kate lived on Rathlin Island in her early twenties and her family has strong connections to the island. “The family in Rathlin are fisherman, my second son’s a full time fisherman as was his father, grandfather and great grandfather so long connections with the sea.”
Kate herself was drawn to the water from an early age and spent her career developing strategies for rural communities around Ireland. As a result she worked intimately with fisheries and immersed herself in the industry. It was while she was working on a project in Maine that Kate discovered a company who weren’t just harvesting seaweed, they were growing it themselves. Kate took her inspiration back to Rathlin Island and Islander Kelp was born.
Asia might seem like the obvious target market for a fledgling seaweed company, especially in the wake of Fukushima, but Kate is happy to focus on a closer market. “Our view is that there are 500 million people in Europe, people who are increasingly adventurous and cautious and careful and thoughtful about their diet. We won’t even be able to start to touch demand in a few years’ time, just locally, closer to home.”
The kelp that is produced is not like the seaweed you are picturing clogging up your local beach when you want to go swimming. On Rathlin Island they grow their kelp on ropes which protects it from the rough treatment that wild kelp is exposed to. “Wild kelp gets bashed around with the waves of the shoreline so it tends to be thick, coarse and kind of stringy. When you grow it on ropes it grows in big thin sheets so it’s much finer.”
The sheets are then put through a machine that makes fine noodles which are cooked and rinsed to remove the alginate. The kelp is portioned and frozen, ready to ship and ready to use when it arrives at its destination. Islander Kelp are currently supplying a range of high end establishments in London and Northern Ireland like Lough Erne, The Merchant Hotel and James St. South. As there is nothing added to the kelp, Kate says it is really versatile.
So a chef opens the packet and they add it to whatever sauce and toss it. People like Noel McMeel, he tosses it in saffron butter and serves it with a pan fried scallop. Whatever you want to do with it, it’s incredibly versatile you can make so much out of it. We also make a minced and shredded product which you can put in butter sauces. Of course you can put that in breads and soups, that’s what people traditionally do with kelp, it’s kind of easy to do that way.
Noel is a massive fan of Islander Kelp products and he supports the product by using it in a lot of dishes. He recognises the importance of using local products and his menus at Lough Erne Resort. “Go out and find the very best locally grown seasonal ingredients. Islander Kelp is the next biggest supper food to hit our island. It looks good, it tastes great & it’s good for the body. It’s an amazing product. I believe it’s about supporting farms and grocers that respect the earth. Prepare meals that delight and excite the senses, but don’t get seduced into overcomplicating. Above all else, let the natural flavour of good food shine through. This is the kind of food I keep at arm’s reach to sustain and delight myself, and feed the guests who drop in and gather round my table.”
Besides their kelp noodles, the team also make their own kelp pesto which has won awards at the Scottish Speciality Food Show. They also provide raw kelp to companies who make dashi for soup stock. Seaweed has long been a feature of Japanese cuisine due to the umami flavours in raw laminaria but also because of the great health benefits. According to Kate kelp has more iron and calcium than any other vegetable, including kale and spinach. It also has protein and lots of vitamin D because it absorbs a lot of sunlight. It also has magnesium, selenium and trace elements of some super minerals.
“We are doing some work with the University of Ulster’s Centre for Diet and Health and they’ve been exploring its use for cardiovascular and other dietary issues. Of course it’s long been suggested that it has very powerful anti-carcinogenic properties but it is not proven so you have to be careful. It’s also a fat inhibitor, that is proven. If you eat it, your body will not absorb fat so it’s actually quite good for dieting.” Kate says that these things make it a super food and she wants to make it a more user friendly product.
Introducing a Western market to edible seaweeds is a big undertaking but it is a mission that is already bearing fruit as the company goes from strength to strength. Since starting the company three years ago, Kate has been able to take on a whole team of technicians and create opportunities on the island of Rathlin. As a result the population of the island has soared… up to 127. “There’s eight children under the age of three and there’s nine at the primary school now! We have this kind of young family baby boom at the moment and so from our perspective, a big part of what I’m trying to do is also create employment on the island.”
Kate wants to give her staff a level of technical education so the roles carry intellectual and professional value. Traditional work on islands tends towards manual or tourism based labour like farming, fishing and seasonal work. Kate’s aim is to create a professional industry for the island.
The technicians take native Rathlin kelp and prepare the spores for a release. If they are lucky they will get a release of baby kelp which is actually a type of zooplankton that have tails and swim around the sterile seawater looking for an anchor. After they attach to strings, they become an algal plant and the strings are transferred to growing tanks for 40 days where they are given an organic feed. Kate admits it might be more cost effective to capture the release in the sea but they like the lab method and it ensures work for her technical staff. “I think because we’re playing around with different times of year and different species, ultimately it will give us what will be a more consistent product. But certainly in the short term it’s a more pricey way to do things.”
The strings are then transplanted to ropes out in the water where there is lots of sea movement. This is good as it prevents stuff growing on the kelp and it kicks up minerals and nutrients from the sea bed.
The Irish Sea is at its narrowest where Ballycastle and Scotland are adjacent and Rathlin is in the middle of that channel so it has amongst the strongest tides around the island of Ireland. With those tides comes lots of upwellings so nutrients are always being mixed up from the sea bed and churned around in the sea. Then the tide is keeping the temperatures very constant and cold and that’s why Rathlin is one of the best places anywhere to grow kelp.
Kate is lucky to be living in the ideal place for the cultivation of kelp and even more blessed to be able to work alongside her family. All four of her sons are involved in the business on the boats, in the labs and working on the filtration systems. “I mean if anyone out there works with family it’s just wonderful. I mean the whole thing does have a nice family atmosphere about it and that doesn’t just mean our own family, it means the staff as well. It’s creating more opportunities for them so hopefully it will take off and it will be there going forward.”
Theirs is a complicate business though. Besides the technical aspects of production and the challenge of breaking seaweed into an ill prepared market, Kate says the business and sales aspect is challengingk. “As anybody in the food sector knows, getting to market and getting buyers is unbelievably hard work, the amount of phone calls and follow up and follow up and pushing and pushing. And I didn’t realise that, despite my work with the seafood industry, I just don’t think any of us were fully aware of just how hard it would be to do the selling end of things.”
However hard it may be, Islander Kelp is certainly making strides in the food industry. Not only is it being distributed across Northern Ireland and the UK, Kate is in talks at the moment to create a retail product which should be available this summer. Customers could soon be seeing Islander Kelp on the shelves of their local supermarket.
There’s not a week goes by now but we are getting increased orders and new customers. I would just like to say a big huge thank you out to all those people like Noel McMeel who go out of their way to present opportunities to present little people like us to the market. I think noel himself is just super. And all those chefs out there who, despite hugely busy lives and really high pressure work they still make time so just a big a thanks to everybody.
To find out more about Islander Kelp visit islanderseafood.com.
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo