Seaweed? What does the name conjure up? The smell of the sea? Fun-filled days at the beach rock pooling with the kids? That irritating green, slimy stuff you slip on when the tide goes out?
Chances are the first or even the third thing that springs to mind is not that night’s dinner, unless you happen to be a fan of sushi.
All that could be about to change, however. This Monday eight North East Asda stores, including Gateshead, Peterlee and Sunderland, will begin selling seaweed sausages.
The company behind the novel new bangers is South Tyneside-based Dicksons.
The family-run pork butchers which has been a stalwart on the regional food scene since 1953, is more famous for producing the smoked saveloy, a highly seasoned North East take on a German sausage that has become something of a local institution, with the firm producing an astonishing 50,000 every week.
It’s become so renowned that Princess Anne even asked to take some home with her when she visited Dicksons’ South Shields headquarters last year.
But now the company which has its roots in the German pork butchers shops that sprang up in the area in the 19th century has looked to the seaside for inspiration.
And it’s not as unpalatable or crazy as it sounds.
Seaweed has been eaten since prehistoric times. It is still a staple ingredient in Asian cooking and more than 20 species are used in Japanese food alone.
But despite sushi becoming increasingly popular here in the West, we long ago lost our taste for what is one of the of the world’s most abundant, versatile and sustainable ingredients.
Why our appetite has been curbed probably needs little explanation. When it comes to unappealing ingredients, seaweed is a winner every time.
It looks rubbery, oleaginous, comes in a range of unappealing browny-green shades and, not surprisingly, smells overpoweringly of the sea.
But research suggests that rather than excluding seaweed from our diets we should all be embracing it.
When it comes to superfoods they don’t come any more nutrient rich.
This maligned marine algae of which there are more than 10,000 different species worldwide – 650 of which can be found around the UK’s coast - is rich in iodine and calcium, a natural antioxidant, can help with weight management and is packed with essential minerals, amino acids and micro-nutrients.
Seaweed also happens to make an appetising and natural salt substitute.
Hence Dicksons’ divergence into the world of seaweed sausages.
Thanks to the addition of Ascophyllum Nodosum, or egg wrack, the firm’s latest culinary innovation has 50% less salt than its traditional counterparts.
But in this case less salt doesn’t mean any loss of taste. And neither do the sausages taste ‘seaweedy.’
Indeed, Elena Dickson, the third generation of her family to be involved in the company founded by her paternal grandfather, says flavouring with seaweed has actually brought out the natural taste of the meat, reducing the need for conventional salt in the seasoning process.
The idea for the new-style sausage came about after Elena was introduced to Dr Craig Rose, a marine biologist who specialises in seaweed.
Originally from Leeds, the 36 year has made his home in North Shields after gaining first a degree and then a Phd and Masters in marine biology from Newcastle University.
Married with three children aged 14, four and 23 months, he initially worked in marine and environmental consultancy, but became increasingly drawn towards research being done into the myriad uses seaweed can be put to, from green biofuels to its nutritional and health benefits.
Craig became involved with the Seaweed Health Foundation which advocates the plants health benefits and has researched its food value, particularly to extend shelf life, help improve everyday cognitive function and suppress appetite.
Now he runs Seaweed and Co, fittingly based just off North Shields Fish Quay, advising on the uses of this natural food and supplying it dried to companies like Dicksons.
He also sits on the Algal Application Group of the British Phycological Society (phycologists are seaweed botanists) and is a member of the Scottish Seaweed Industry Association steering group.
Craig – who is involved in ongoing research at Newcastle and other universities into the benefits of seaweed – describes it as “a forgotten food.”
“Pre the Industrial Revolution lots of people used to eat seaweed in the UK. It was used as a fertiliser and fed to animals. Then during World War Two when rationing was as its height people started harvesting it again to eat.
“It was known to be tasty and nutritious, but then for some reason we all forgot about it. Now everybody only associates it with sushi.
“It is symptomatic with the way we have lost touch with our food and because seaweed is not farmed like wheat and fruit is.”
Disagreeable as seaweed has become, it has in fact never totally been lost from our diet. Many seaweed varieties are rich in gelatin-like alginates, used as a setting agent in foods.
And while Dicksons is one of the first UK butchers to create a pork sausage seasoned with seaweed, Craig says other food firms have begun using it to flavour everything from bread to pizzas, ready meals, soups and biscuits.
“They just don’t like shouting about it because they think shoppers will be put off,” Craig says. “But seaweed is delicious.”
Elena admits she was initially sceptical when introduced to Craig. “I think at first we were like OK, right. Interesting, but…
“Then Craig began to explain more about the benefits of seaweed and how it is a natural ingredient that could be used to replace salt.
“We liked the idea that we could cut the salt content, and as we are always looking for ways to expand and improve our range we thought we would give it a try.
“As a firm that’s already famous for its saveloy dip we thought seaweed sausages could be something else we could be well-known for.”
It took 12 months of research and development by the Dicksons team to create a reduced salt seaweed sausage the firm believed would meet with the public’s approval.
Not all the experiments were a success. “We did at one point replace all the salt with seaweed and it was God awful!,” Elena exclaims. “But we persevered and came up with a sausage we were all happy with.”
It was then trialled at Dicksons’ 24 North East shops last November during British Sausage Week.
The feedback was encouraging. “Customers thought it would taste of fish and the sea, but the response we got was that they were pleasantly surprised by it,” Elena says.
“Asda were then keen to look at having the sausage as they like to give their customers new and interesting foods.”
They will sell from Monday in 400g packs labelled as pork, onion and seaweed sausages under the Dicksons name. It is hoped to roll them out into Dicksons’ stores in the coming months.
While Dicksons is a local company, the seaweed comes from the Outer Hebrides.
It is dried and then ground into a fine powder that looks not unlike pepper.
The North East has its share of seaweed, but unlike the Outer Hebrides, it is not sustainable. And location is vital for other reasons.
Seaweed that is earmarked for human consumption needs to be grown in pristine conditions. A number of rivers drain into the North Sea, bringing sediment with them.
The world’s oceans have also become a dumping ground for both industrial and domestic effluent. Seaweed absorbs contaminants, so much so it is introduced into polluted waters to help clean them.
“In the Hebrides there is an abundance of seaweed growing in unpolluted waters, and there is also an historical seaweed industry,” Craig explains. “We use the Herbridean Seaweed Company that harvests in a sustainable way using what I can only describe as big floating lawn mowers.
“It goes straight to the factory where it is dried and milled for either animal feed or human consumption.”
That’s not to say Dicksons couldn’t one day be using seaweed from our region. Craig is involved with a project on the Northumberland coast investigating growing sea lettuce in tanks using pumped sea water.
If Dicksons’ seaweed sausages take-off Elena says it could open the door for similar products.
Theoretically, seaweed could replace salt in any number of foods.
But is the world ready for a full-scale culinary macroalgae invasion?
As Craig points out: “In the 1970s no-one had heard about yoghurt and you could only get it in health food shops, and now it’s available everywhere and is in every aspect of our lives.
“It’s the same with hummus. Ten to 15 years ago it was a very middle class thing, but now it is Tesco’s biggest selling dip.
“Seaweed is natural, sustainable and healthy. It’s our job to educate people and get more of it into the market.
“Dicksons has been really forward thinking and they haven’t been afraid to put seaweed front of pack and to take it to a mainstream supermarket.
“They have produced good quality sausages and they have gone out there and been innovative whereas others don’t dare to do it.
“Anybody can produce a venison sausage. It’s about doing something new along with the health benefits. Seaweed is an extraordinarily nutritious source of food.”
The day may never come when we’re having kelp, thongweed or knotted wrack with a side helping of chips, but Dicksons’ will be hoping it’s on to a shore thing with its seaweed sausages.
Dicksons’ pork and seaweed sausages will be available to buy from eight Asda North East stores from April 13 - Gateshead, Peterlee, Sunderland, Boldon, Benton, Blyth, Stanley and South Shields.
Alternatively they can be bought via Dicksons online shop at www.midickson.com at £3 for a 400g pack of six.