Dulse (Palmeria palmata) is an edible seaweed which grows by the shore. It can be of different colors, depending on the surroundings and season, varying from purple to salad-green. In Iceland, dulse is collected mostly in August during low tide and is found in the Breiðafjörður, a wide and rather shallow bay in western of Iceland, and at various locations in western and southwestern Iceland. When collected it needs to be cut off and part of it left to grow again the following spring.
Dulse is found in North Atlantic countries, mainly in Ireland and Iceland as well in the North Pacific, but it has been declining as a food supply since the 19th century or earlier. In Iceland, its use had all but disappeared a few decades ago but recently there has been an upsurge, as the health benefits of dulse have gained attention. It is rich in antioxidants, protein when collected early, carbonhydrate when collected later in the season.
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 wifes 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, writtien 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.
Dulse was from early on considered a valuable source of food that added to the value of farms where it could be harvested. It was always the most valuable of the algaes which were collected by Iceland‘s seashore, used for food (fresh and dried) but also burned to get salt, called “black salt” before true salt (“white salt”) was imported from Denmark at the end of the 14th century.
After the dulse had been harvested, usually in August, it was soaked in freshwater for 24 hours (although there were some locations where dulse grew in shallow water at the mouths of rivers and brooks and were constantly being rinsed in fresh water, so they didn’t need soaking), then spread on the ground – usually a freshly mowed meadow – to dry and treated as hay, turned over with a rake to dry in the sun. When dry, the dulse was packed in barrels, weighed down and stored, usually for several months. They could be eaten immediately after drying but they were said to be softer and more digestible after storage.
Dulse was eaten dry with butter or other fat, usually alongside “harðfiskur” (dried fish) and lots of butter. It was also added to stews and soups, porridges, blood puddings and sometimes flatbreads, and eaten with angelica root. They were also sometimes boiled, pressed and presereved in fermented whey.
The use of dulse as human food seems to have declined considerably in the late 18th and early 19the century, as import of grains and other food grew, and prices dropped sharply, by 75% or more. There was little interest in dulse for most of the 20th century, although enterprising cooks and home economists sometimes tried to tempt people to eat more of them by making innovative dishes but failed to make an impact. But the last ten to fifteen years have seen a renewed interest in dulse and algae in general, as a food complement or spice. It is mainly dried and chewed or ground into powder to use in cooking and a few small producers pick dulse and pack in consumer packaging.
The dulse grows wild on the shores of Iceland and the newly awaken interest in it is promising. But the tradition of using dulse as a high quality and high value traditional product is still weak: few artisanal producers distribute the product, cooks have started to use it both as a spice and in other dishes, mainly with fish, but consumers need to realize its value and possibilities.
Image: Slow Food i Reykjavik