Seaweed cuisine on crest of a wave

IT'S slimy, smelly and Scottish, and it's coming soon to a dinner plate near you.

• Rich bounty: Iain Mckellar at work harvesting seaweed on the Isle of Bute by cutting it with a clam shell. People want to eat the nutritious sea vegetable he says, they just don't know it yet. Photograph: Robert Perry

Scottish seaweed, best known as a slippery hazard at the seaside but now rechristened "sea vegetable," is on track to become one of the restaurant world's most fashionable dishes.

The surge in popularity follows former milkman Iain McKellar setting himself up as Scotland's only commercial seller of a range of edible seaweeds including kombu, bladderwrack and carrageen from his base on Bute. He is now inundated with orders from top London restaurants.

McKellar, who just 18 months ago was on the dole after being made redundant from his job driving a milk lorry, now harvests 18 varieties of seaweed from the beach outside the island capital Rothesay, where he cuts them off the rocks with a clam shell.

After setting up his business online, McKellar's seaweed is on the menu at some of the top restaurants in the country, including Michelin-starred eateries such as Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley in London, L'enclume in Cumbria and The Burlington in Yorkshire. He has also fielded interest from Scotland's Michelin-starred chefs Andrew Fairlie, and George McIvor, a former chairman of the Master Chefs of Great Britain.

It has now become so popular Mckellar will this month start foraging courses to teach chefs how to source sea "vegetables" themselves.

"When I started out I couldn't understand why people were buying imported foreign dried seaweed when we're surrounded by the fresh stuff and it's all edible," said Mckellar. "Seaweed is a beautiful, nutritious, fresh vegetable. People want to eat seaweed - they just don't know it yet."

There are more than 100 varieties in the waters around Scotland, but they have been traditionally shunned as food. Seaweed has experienced a recent rise in popularity in culinary circles after Danish restaurant Noma, recently ranked the world's number one restaurant ahead of Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck, started using sea vegetables on its menu. Blumenthal also recently released a range of stocks for Waitrose that include kombu, as well as a beef, ale and kombu pie.

"There are so many uses for sea vegetables," said John Quigley, head chef and proprietor at Glasgow's Red Onion Bistro. "The problem is I don't think a lot of people see beyond the fact that it's a sea vegetable and it comes out the sea and it's slimy. That's the problem."

Roy Brett, head chef at Edinburgh seafood restaurant Ondine, agreed. He said: "I really like working with sea vegetables. They do have a place on the menu. They give you so many nutrients and vitamins and we always get so many great comments when we use seaweed in our dishes. People enjoy it. It's got great flavour."

Mckellar is now hoping to supply more top restaurants and hopes his foraging courses will create even more demand. "We'll get them in their wellies and down to the shore to see what it's actually like," he said. "It's important for chefs to see just how it's harvested and get a real feel for it."

He added: "Seaweed is not a convenience food, and that's perhaps one of the reasons it's not had the huge surge of popularity until now. There is quite a bit of effort involved, you've got to cut it at a particular time of day, use the clam shell, wash it and rinse it - but it is all worth the effort."

Brett believes there needs to be a change in attitudes to how consumers treat local produce such as seaweed. He said: "We import herbs and salads from Israel yet we've got people out there on our own doorstep putting money into their own economy. We really should be supporting them rather than buying things that have travelled the world."

One dish on Wareing's Berkeley menu that includes seaweed involves Scottish lobster, squash, sea beet and lobster bisque.

Three popular varieties

CARRAGEEN

Also known as Irish moss, carrageen is a species of red algae which has been eaten in Ireland for hundreds of years. When boiled it takes on a jelly-like quality, and is often used as an industrial thickener in milk products such as ice cream. It can also be used to make a milky drink with whisky and cinnamon, and in Ireland it has long been part of the home-brewing process.

KOMBU

An edible kelp widely eaten in south Asia, where it is cultivated on ropes, kombu has grown in popularity in the UK recently thanks to chef Heston Blumenthal, who uses it in a number of dishes in his Waitrose range. In Asia it is commonly used to make stock. It grows freely in Scottish waters.

DULSE

A red algae grown on the northern coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, dulse is a popular snack food in Asian and Scandinavian cultures. It is first believed to have been harvested by St Columba's monks 1400 years ago and today is often eaten dried and uncooked as a party food in Ireland, where it is known as dillisk. In Iceland it is usually eaten with butter.