In Search of the Wild Dulse
After combing the Rye cove for half an hour, chef Evan Hennessey has found what he is seeking. He dips his hand under the low, tidal water to pull out a burgundy, iridescent piece of seaweed and then holds it up proudly, for his friend and me to see. He grips it by the base, so its wide, smooth fronds—the leafy part—lifts in the wind, spreading out like oversized fingers.
For a moment, we are all still, taking in the prize. Then his friend and fellow chef, Patrick Soucy, says, “That’s the jam. That’s my favorite stuff right there. I just suck on it. I could eat it right now.”
It’s not jam though. It’s dulse, one of the most culinarily versatile types of seaweed. If eaten raw, dulse is supple in texture and has a salty, sea flavor, but Hennessey doesn’t plan on using it raw. He will later take it back to his high-end, locally-sourced restaurant, Stages One Washington, in Dover, New Hampshire, where industrial dehydrators will dry the seaweed into crunchy strips or seaweed-flavored vinegar will pickle it to perfection. Hennessey says that dulse, along with other varieties of seaweed, fills a “flavor spot” in his restaurant’s seafood dishes. “[Seaweed] is obviously from the ocean, and has that flavor to it, and it enabled us to bring that flavor into our fish dishes.”
Stages gathers many of their ingredients from the New Hampshire seacoast region—an area of constant study for Hennessey. In his cooking practice, Hennessey moves beyond the idea of “know thy farmer” to know thy ecology, natural history, shores and meadows. When foraging for food, he attempts to attune himself to the land like a compass, asking, “How close to water are you? How close to pine? How close to tree level?” Hennessey works with three professional foragers, one specializing in mushrooms, one in herbs and vegetables, and other in seaweed. He also does a lot of it himself, especially the seaweed harvesting, going to the shore once a month in the winter and weekly in the summer.
When studying the lay of a new area, Hennessey brings with him a map, so he can mark good sources of seaweed, or other wild-growing vegetables and flowers, but today he is returning to a familiar spot. He carries with him a white tray, which he lays the seaweed in like he is drying linguini. Soucy, who has never been seaweed foraging before, brings a wicker backpack that allows him to bound along the shoreline, hands-free. They both carry scissors, so they can detach the fronds from the roots, technically called the holdfast, allowing the seaweed to grow back. Usually, they find seaweed that has been already knocked from its roots by the waves, floating without a lifeline.
Along with dulse, Hennessey is in search of horsetail kelp—a seaweed with long, thick fronds that resemble, as the name suggests, a horse’s tail. Horsetail kelp appears to be more abundant than dulse, or perhaps its golden color makes it easier to spot. The horsetail kelp can be used to make a broth for any dish, to wrap around steaming fish, or to make Hennessey’s favorite, dashi, a salty Japanese soup and cooking stock. He’s also on the lookout for sugar kelp, a dark green seaweed with a long, single, riveted fronds that resembles an eel and can also be used to make dashi.
Hennessey moves slowly, deliberately, along the shoreline, which is covered in a shiny mat of seaweed. In contrast, Soucy moves quickly with a newcomers excitement. Soucy is giddy when he finds the perfect sea lettuce, which looks like a patch of bright green moss and sits squarely on his palm. He hopes to learn from Hennessey and incorporate seaweed into his soon-to-open restaurant at Applecrest Farm.
“This stuff is so delicious, so I don’t understand why it took me so long to get moving on it. I expect to see more chefs utilize it because it’s true to who we are. People have been eating this forever,” says Soucy.
Part of Hennessey’s philosophy is to “bring food back to its origins,” so in arranging the flavors of the dishes, he is always considering ecosystems, what flavors exist alongside each other in nature. You could call it flavor symbiosis, or as Hennessey likes to say, “What grows together, goes together.” He gives the example of when foraging along the Rye shore, he found juniper, radish, seaweed, and fish all together, which means they would also complement each other in a dish.
Hennessey applies his philosophy to his cooking techniques as well, preferring to cook fish on low heat and with seawater, mirroring the fish’s natural environment. “We probably seared 20 pieces of fish. We gently poach. We oil poach. We cook in seawater. It’s very natural. At a low temperature.”
By sourcing his food close to home, Hennessey also hopes to create a local cuisine, reflective of New England. Our food culture right now, as Hennessey explains, is limited to baked beans and lobster rolls, which is not enough to constitute a cuisine. “One of the things we’re working here is what we’re calling a new New England, redefining New England’s food based on what’s around us. Because we don’t really feel that it’s been done since colonization, so we want to do it.”
According to Hennessey, New England is ripe for its own cuisine, with an underutilized land and culture. Every variety of seaweed found along New Hampshire’s shore is edible, yet it is most often left to wither in the sun, and the forest is an equally forgotten food source.
“We have all of these things—the seaweed, the farming, the heritage of the farming that goes back to pre-colonization times—it’s here. It’s been here. Why isn’t anyone taking advantage of it or even using it?” asks Hennessey.
Hennessey’s goal to create a new food culture is a lofty one. He takes careful note of the past, studying pre-colonial maps of New England and cultural and geographic history books to rediscover pieces of New England’s food history that have been lost. When I visited Stages, Hennessey handed me “A Landscape History of New England,” a book that has been essential in helping him conceptualize a regional cuisine. He keeps two copies of it at his restaurant for easy reference. I note there is no section on cooking, reflective of how Hennessey’s approach stretches so beyond technique. Although to be sure, considering his culinary accolades, Hennessey certainly has technique down too.
In envisioning a “new New England” culture, Hennessey has turned to comparable costal landscapes for inspiration. Formally trained in French cooking, Hennessey now takes cues from the layering of flavors in Japanese cuisine and the wild vegetation, sea vegetation and preserving practices in the Scandinavian countries. Scandinavia is also ecologically comparable to New England, with many of the same wild plants, herbs and flowers, making it a fertile source of inspiration, and it is home to a restaurant of particularly influence, Noma, in Copenhagen, which is consistently ranked as the best restaurant in the world and serves reinvented Nordic cuisine sourced from nearby forests and shores. Hennessey is careful though to separate his project from what’s been done before, seeking to create something new that’s historically and ecologically informed.
“We don’t want to mimic [Scandinavian and Japanese] dishes; we just want to learn from their environments,” he explains.
Along with books, Hennessey learns from other chefs, researchers, and farmers in the area, so his restaurant functions both as a local food think-tank, or as he calls it “a laboratory.” He calls his kitchen “the sandbox” because it is a place of experimentation, failure, and filled with toys that only a chef could truly appreciation. He holds meetings for other food industry professionals in the area in which they all gather in “the sandbox” to learn from each other. He recently began holding community workshops around seaweed, where he invites scientists from Maine Sea Grant and New Hampshire Cooperative Extensive, as well as any interested community members.
At a community seaweed workshop that I attended in February, Hennessey treated us to various seaweed snacks as a crowd gathered in his immaculate, stainless steel lined kitchen. Among my favorite of the snacks were bladderack seaweed chips—thin, crispy strips of seaweed that he made by pureeing bladderack in ocean water, stabilizing it with agar, citric acid, and pectin, and then dehydrating it. He also passed around delicious bowls of Irish moss pudding, made with milk, sugar, cream, and Irish moss, acting as a thickening agent. The pudding had a heavy, frothy consistency, somewhere between sponge cake and traditional pudding, and had just the right amount of sweetness. Hennessey warned audience members to stir frequently if making it at home, lest it get “really volcanic on you and erupt over the top of the pot.” He said this as someone who had clearly learned the hard way.
Hennessey’s projects with Stages are always evolving, with no destination in mind, and he named his restaurant in part to reflect this ethos.
“We never wanted to put together a set-it and forget-it model. […] We unroll things in stages. We never know exactly what the next thing is. I like not knowing. It opens up for things like this. Who knows where this could lead to.” Says Hennessey.
In one of the essays included in “A Landscape History of New England”, Kent C. Ryden describes a landscape as an “accidental archive,” which seems to be how Hennessey regards cooking: an act of history and culture in the making, without an end in sight. But if lucky, there might be some dulse in sight.