Seaweed is the latest food trend - but Northern Ireland producers say they're sunk by red tape
Seaweed was billed as the latest 'it' health food - and it's a delicacy not in short supply here.
However, Northern Ireland producers claim that red tape has stopped them from creating lucrative businesses in the sector.
Charlie Cole from Broughgammon Farm in Ballycastle claimed that hefty rents forced upon seaweed pickers by the Crown Estate had hampered the industry.
He said that red tape had made his seaweed business not viable as he was asked to pay large rents for a licence to pick seaweed, before his business had any chance of generating a return.
The problem arises because beaches are property of the Crown and commercial picking requires permission from the Estate.
Food hygiene requirements also mean that the traditional method of air-drying seaweed along the shore can no longer be used, meaning that producers have to build their own costly drying facilities.
His farm, which is best known for its goat meat, instead runs courses between March and October explaining the benefits of using seaweed for personal use as well as teaching the difference between varieties.
But despite the problems he has faced, Charlie still believes seaweed is a food of the future. "It's something we've always eaten and people are always saying we are running out of food and will have to find alternative food sources, so I imagine it will be first considered before bugs and all sorts."
Mr Cole compared seaweed to cinnamon. "If you take a spoonful of it on its own it won't taste great, but if you use it as an ingredient it brings out all sorts of flavours. There's a treacle flavour to kelp, a saltish taste to sea lettuce which works well in bread and dulse has a very deep, meaty flavour, which suits stews," he said.
"It's like looking into a vegetable patch, but to someone who doesn't know what they are looking for it can look like a patch of weeds."
Other Northern Ireland food companies haven't been slow to get in on the seaweed trend.
Alison Abernethy, who runs Abernethy Butter in Dromore, has won awards for her dulse and sea-salt butter.
She knew seaweed was en vogue, but was sold on the idea of it in butter when she saw north-west chef Derek Creagh, of Harry's Shack in Portstewart and Harry's in Bridgend, Co Donegal, serve it with his dishes.
Now the Abernethys use seaweed harvested along the north coast by Irish Seaweeds in Dunmurry.
Their resulted dulse butter was well-received and judges of this year's Great Taste Awards raved about the local provenance of all its ingredients - adorning the product with a gold star.
Her secret is "mixing and tasting and mixing and tasting until you get it right".
However, because there are no additives in the product, the butter has a shelf life of just five weeks. That can put some off, but it is stocked in several specialist retailers including Arcadia and Avoca.
But there won't be any garlic butter or herb butter on the Abernethy menu. "We want to stay away from garlic and herbs," Mrs Abernethy said. "People are looking for something a little bit different, but not too far 'out there'."
As well as its harvest on the north coast, Irish Seaweeds runs Europe's first commercial seaweed aquaculture in Strangford Lough.
A spokesman for The Crown Estate said: "We look to set fair charges for the commercial harvesting of natural seaweed stocks based on the scale and geographic extent of the proposed operation. In Northern Ireland charges for operations that are currently licenced range between £50 and £550 per annum. Any proposed harvesting of wild stocks for commercial purposes will only be consented and licenced where documented natural heritage authority (DoE/NIEA) endorsement has been obtained so as to ensure sustainable practice.
"Where harvesting is for personal use, we do not charge any fees at all."