THE secret of what gives Scotland’s “truffle of the sea” its unique flavour may soon be unlocked.
Pepper dulse is a wild-growing native seaweed that is highly prized by top chefs for its “orgasmic” taste.
But not all dulse is the same. Its characteristics vary depending on where, when and how it is grown.
Now scientists from Dundee and Oban are busy gathering and testing samples of the seaweed from around Scottish shores in an attempt to pin down exactly which factors define particular traits.
As well as chemical analysis, researchers at the James Hutton Institute (JHI) and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (Sams) will employ specialist “tasters” to assess each variety.
They hope the experiments will also help identify the conditions needed to create the most desirable variety so it could be cultivated for use in the food industry.
Dr Gordon McDougall, from JHI’s environmental and biochemical sciences group, said: “If you eat it raw it has got a right peppery kick. But the flavour varies, and some have a real garlicky undertone. When it is dried you get the umami taste.
“The colour varies from yellow to red to almost black. Factors such as the season, the location and even the weather all seem to affect the flavour.
“There is interest in Scottish dulse from high-end chefs and foodies. People are adding it to everything from scallops to eggs or using it in stock. You get great flavours, and it even goes well with lamb and steak.
“We’re hoping this new study will help us understand how a consistent crop could be cultivated.”
Dr Michele Stanley, from Sams, added: “The chemical make-up and flavour of pepper dulse is markedly affected by environmental and growing conditions and nobody has sat down and looked at this in a scientific manner, until now.”
Dulse is rich in vitamins and minerals and a good source of protein. It was part of the regular diet in coastal communities in Scotland for centuries.
It can be eaten raw, boiled to create a pulp with a porridge-like consistency, dried and consumed as a snack, or used as a seasoning and thickener in broths and stews.
Graham Campbell, the youngest Scottish chef to win a coveted Michelin star at the age of 25 and currently head chef at Dundee’s Castlehill Restaurant, has experimented with the ingredient.
He was introduced to dulse by a foraging expert, gathering a black variety growing near Arbroath. The taste blew him away.
“Flavourwise it tastes like white truffle, a delicacy that costs around £2,500 a kilo – it has a really potent flavour,” he said.
“I just cut it off the rock and ate it. His exact words were ‘When you try this you’re going to have an orgasm.’ It really is that good.
“Not only that, it is full of vitamins and minerals. Nowadays chefs are using it more and more.”
His favourite way to serve dulse is raw, as a garnish for fresh halibut.
Wild harvesting is currently done in winter, but is far from straightforward due to problems of accessibility and timing. Dulsing, as it is known, can only be done when the tide goes out to expose swathes of its richly coloured fronds clinging to rocks on the seabed.
The current studies could have important implications for Scotland’s emerging seaweed cultivation industry, providing a year-round supply with consistently excellent flavour characteristics while also preventing unsustainable wild harvesting.
McDougall added: “Looking at this variation in flavour is novel, and selecting the best material for aquaculture will support a sustainable and commercially valuable rural Scottish industry.”