Spring is officially here, the vernal equinox heralding the arrival of new life across the island’s natural world and here at the Isle of Harris Distillery too.
The first early lambs are starting to appear on crofts across the Outer Hebrides, and although the weather remains stubbornly wild and wintery, a sense of change is in the air.
So, as the new season gets underway, we thought we’d catch up with our Sugar Kelp diver Lewis Mackenzie to find out how life below the waves is faring at this key time of year.
Regular readers will know that Lewis is responsible for gathering the seaweed we use as our defining Isle of Harris Gin botanical. Working sustainably at all times, he harvests each precious frond by hand from local sea-lochs.
We allow these beautiful underwater forests to rest over the winter months, with little being taken for our needs. But spring brings a fresh spurt of growth as daylight hours get longer and the time to gather in earnest returns once more.
He tells us….
"The kelp is growing by up to 5 centimetres a day right now. The leaves are clean and tissue-thin, undulating with a translucent gold colour as they sway in the tide under the occasional blink of sun. By the end of March, they will average about 1 metre in length."
This being the far north-west of Scotland, the water Lewis works in is still very cold at around 7.5ºC but it also means there is little plankton to cloud his view while he swims. On a calm day, he says it's 'gin clear’…
“The crabs and lobster are still a bit lethargic, there are wrasse hiding in rock crevices and pollock nosing gently into the tide. Above the waves, the common seals are enjoying the longer days and ‘sunbathing' every chance they get."
With this in mind, the environmental impact of his work is always to the fore, and he makes sure the leaves he takes are carefully picked, with stalks left untouched. In this way, he can return to the same plant 2 or 3 times a year to pick some more.
The many crustaceans which call these Sugar Kelp forests their home are also carefully handled and returned to the water unharmed when found among his daily crop.
Lewis takes his responsibility to the underwater world seriously, with a professional approach to protecting this critical maritime resource, working to legal guidelines and including GPS based traceability back to his harvest sites.
As well as our kelp, he also now gathers many other seaweed species which some of the best chefs and restaurants across the UK are clamouring to get hold of for their delicious dishes.
And, it seems he’s just as at home in a hot kitchen as he is in cold water….
"I'm always experimenting with seaweed in food. The weekend lamb roast now gets wrapped in kelp instead of tin foil. Last night’s dinner was a cod fillet done in the same way but seasoned with a seaweed called Pepper Dulse. It was oven-baked perfectly and accompanied by a glass of Isle of Harris Gin!”
We encourage you to connect with Lewis to learn more about his life at sea via his Facebook page. It’s full of great photography and if you ever visit our islands be sure to book some time on one of his boat trips.
He’ll be introducing new seaweed foraging trips this year too, starting in May.
As we get into the swing of this Sugar Kelp spring, our thanks go as always to Lewis for all his hard work in bringing this wonderful natural ingredient to our island spirit and aromatic waters.