Lewis Mackenzie is on a mission – to harvest the culinary riches of the Minch and to run a diverse, satisfying and year-round business built on the sea.
Unafraid of hard work, Lewis has been building his popular boat charter, Hebrides Fish ‘n’ Trips, at the same time as diving for scallops, cutting seaweed by hand and carrying wildlife surveyors out on carefully planned research trips.
Now he’s seeing success with the latest addition to his portfolio, Hebridean Wildfoods Ltd (HWL) – and it’s taking him into the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants and into the company of world-renowned chefs.
The business started with two realisations – that any boat charter company is going to see the peak of its work in the summer, and that there is a new and growing interest in the flavour of sea vegetables.
Lewis said: “I have always wanted to work at sea year-round, but wildlife watching, photography and fishing trips are only going to be comfortable for visitors in the summer.
“At the same time, I realised that, although there was a growing awareness among chefs that seaweed has potential as an ingredient, they were using sources in the Far East to get their supplies.
“A couple of foraging companies had started up in Cornwall and chefs cottoned on. That’s when I realised that I had a perfect new opportunity right on my doorstep.”
Lewis set out to convince the chefs of London, hand-picking the ones he would approach and investing quite a lot in sending samples of different types of seaweed for them to try.
“Some of them liked what I sent and wanted to meet me. I went to see some of them, and others wanted time up here to see the source and the conditions I worked in.”
After hosting visits, providing accommodation and taking chefs out on boat trips, Lewis had his first orders. Now there’s wide and growing interest in a range of his hand-harvested products, including sea spaghetti, which is used like noodles in upmarket kitchens, and sugar kelp – one of the earliest products to be taken up, as the defining botanical in Harris Gin.
Lewis said: “Now there’s an increase in the number of vegetarians and vegans it has spurred on the chefs to try more products. After all, seaweed is a vegetable at the end of the day.”
The growing business is helping feed the island economy too – the sugar kelp needed by Harris Gin is dried at the Hebridean Seaweed Company in Arnish, and fresh produce is packed up in polyboxes made at Marybank before being shipped by DR Macleod and Woody’s.
The latest link is with Islander Shellfish on Cromwell Street Quay in Stornoway. They’re beginning to order wholesale quantities of the harvest from Lewis for supply to local chefs, and he hopes soon to have seaweeds in season retailed to the public from their fish shop.
That means that we could all be getting a taste of Dabberlocks – a strap-like frond of seaweed ideal for making a pastry-free spring roll – or of the exotic bright purple Pepper Dulse, with Christmas-tree shaped sprigs tasting of pepper, Indian spices and vanilla.
And it also means that Lewis can fulfil his dream of working year-round in the wet and cold, bringing shellfish, seaweed and other great taste experiences to tables near and far.
Pictures by Hebridean Wildfoods and Annie Delin.