The snack of Icelandic sagas and Scottish sheep
Some notes on dulse and the Queen's mutton
Hello, Snackers. Would you like some seaweed? Or some seaweed-fed lamb?
Dulse: An Introduction
Coastal areas of the North Atlantic, particularly Iceland, Ireland, and the Scottish Isles.
One of the websites I browse for fun, because this is how I’m wired, is the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity’s Ark of Taste. It’s an amazing database of regional food specialties from around the world—most listings are single ingredients, but there are some actual dishes, too—and it’s a good place to just dip in for a few minutes and learn something new before getting on with your day.
Not long ago, I came across a listing for something called dulse (rhymes with “pulse”), glanced at it, shrugged, clicked away … and several days later had the world’s slowest double-take: “Wait a second, there was something interesting there.” It’s seaweed, a kind that grows in the North Atlantic (some sources say North Pacific, too; other sources say that’s a slightly different seaweed). The Ark of Taste actually has two separate entries for dulse, one focusing on its history in Ireland, where there are records of monks harvesting it a millennia ago, and another account, considerably more stirring, from Iceland:
Dulse was probably used in Iceland since the Settlement in the 9th and 10th century, but the earliest written records that mention its use are from the early 12th century. This is also the earliest written evidence on the use of dulse as food in Europe. The settlers mostly came from Norway, where dulse was not used, but they brought with them slaves and wives from Ireland and the Scottish Isles, where dulse was a valuable food, and they probably taught the Norse settlers it use. There is a well-known story in the Saga of Egill Skallagrímsson, written in the 13th century, where Egill has planned to starve himself to death but his daughter – probably brought up partly by Celtic slaves – tricked him into chewing dulse, which he was unfamiliar with. The salty dulse made him very thirsty and when he was given milk to drink, his fast was broken.
While dulse has declined in use as a food over the last few hundred years, it’s never gone away. In the mid-2010s, it had an impressive comeback as a modern “superfood,” like chia seeds and açaí berries and whatnot. Dulse is high in iodine and potassium and some people claim it combat high cholesterol and has various other health benefits, although, as WebMD puts it, “there is no good scientific evidence to support its use” for purposes. Obviously, lack of evidence has never stopped the marketing hype machine, and if you search Google for dulse, you’ll get all kinds of websites trying to sell you the stuff at a premium, with a strong subtext that it’s basically a cure-all (again, to be clear, it’s not). You’ll also find plenty of claims that it tastes like bacon—like this video by a YouTube food dude who goes by Sauce Stache and tried making various kinds of faux-BLTs with it.
Around the same time, one of the other food trends was New Nordic restaurants with elaborate tasting menus featuring foraged ingredients—Noma was, and is, the biggest name, but there were plenty of others—and dulse made some appearances there, making it perhaps the only ingredient to somehow hit the upper echelons of fine dining, the videos of aspiring Guy Fieris, and the supplement section of your crunchiest local food co-op. Oh, and there was also a trend piece in Bon Appétit in 2015, featuring speculation that dulse was “the next kale.” It was a whole thing, as those Irish monks and Norse settlers knew it would be hundreds of years ago.
That’s a pretty impressive range of history and uses for a single species of seaweed, but we’re not quite done yet. Let’s move on to the sheep portion of the post.
So … this isn’t random so much as a thing I already knew because I’ve seen it with my own eyes, but dulse is also a favorite snack for the sheep on North Ronaldsay, part of Scotland’s Orkney Islands (here’s a map). My parents love Scotland (and they read this newsletter—Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!) and we visited Orkney a few times when I was a kid, including one trip to North Ronaldsay, a very small and very flat sort of place where the main attractions are (1) the Sheep Dyke, a thirteen-mile-long drystone wall that circles the island, and (2) the sheep that the are the reason the wall exists—it keeps them along the shore, where they eat seaweed instead of grass.
The original reason for the Sheep on the Beach—an illustrated board book title if I ever heard one—was that farmers wanted to keep the grass for the cattle, which brought in more money. That was in 1832. The sheep got used to eating seaweed and it now makes up around 80 percent of their diet. It also imparts a “unique gamey taste” to their meat, and North Ronaldsay lamb is now enough of a delicacy that it was served to Queen Elizabeth as part of the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. (This is getting into the [sea]weeds, but I can hear my parents preparing to comment that she’s technically Elizabeth II of England but Elizabeth I of Scotland, and I will just direct them and anyone else who might be interested to this court case on that very matter.)
It’s also worth noting that that old drystone wall around North Ronaldsay is, obviously, quite old and now a historic landmark requiring continued upkeep (again: it’s drystone, so there’s no mortar). To this end, in 2019, the island advertised for—and found—a full-time warden to maintain the wall; there’s also an annual festival that welcomes all comers who want to help with the wall and the sheep (and party with the islanders). If you’re looking for a fun little tourist adventure this summer, there you go. And if any readers do this, let me know and I will personally pay for your dinner at … wherever one eats dinner on North Ronaldsay. Real offer.
Will you like it?
Probably! Especially if you’re a sheep.
Here’s a video
Here’s an excellent introduction to the seaweed sheep. It’s only three minutes long and I promise it’s worth every second.
Happy snacking! Baaa.