IT'S a jaggy, wild, invasive, ancient indigenous weed whose bright orange berries are cheek-suckingly wersh when bitten into.
Despite its unappealing physical attributes, however, scientists and foodies haven't been put off gingerly embracing seabuckthorn as potentially the next big thing in high-end Scottish gastronomy. Some are already hailing it our very own new superfruit.
Research has been ongoing into the health benefits of the thorny plant, which grows in coastal areas near sand dunes up and down the land from November to February. When fresh, the little round fruits contain higher concentrations of Vitamin C than strawberries, kiwis, oranges, tomatoes and carrots; their Vitamin E content is higher than that found in wheat, safflower, maize and soybean. Highly unsaturated oil can be extracted from their seeds, flesh and peel, while the leaves contain high levels of vitamins, minerals, protein and several anti-inflammatory compounds. Phew.
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For several years now boffins at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh have been running trials for small food producers looking to enhance the nutritional content of their products with seabuckthorn, while also adding a fashion-forward Scottish twist. One of these is Cuddybridge, a small producer which has launched a unique hand-pressed seabuckthorn and apple juice that has been proven to contain antioxidants, vitamins and polyphenols at higher levels than in apple juice alone. It's sweet with a tangy kick. Some chefs have made custards and puddings containing seabuckthorn, the berries' colour, flavour and uniqueness being of especial interest.
However, it remains to be seen whether they retain their nutritional attributes after being picked, pulped, frozen or juiced and stored in the freezer throughout the non-growing season, or freeze-dried and powdered and kept in a jar as a way of ensuring continuous supply. It will be interesting to discover whether it loses anything when cooked at high temperatures. To this end Dr Jane McKenzie, academic lead for food & drink knowledge exchange at QMU, and her team have got together with a group of six interested Scottish artisan food producers to form a Special Interest Group which, with the help of £10,000 over six months from Interface Food & Drink, has now embarked on a systematic evaluation of the active antioxidants in stored seabuckthorn foraged from a particular area in East Lothian. Dr McKenzie pronouces it an "exciting" food ingredient that is unique to our culture. I understand healthy tea, chocolate and juice are some of the new retail products that could result, though only if they can state categorically on their labels that the seabuckthorn in them does contain the desired nutritional properties.
There is some evidence from the Russian industry that stored berries do indeed retain antioxidants, but no research has been published. Anyway, our indigenous seabuckthorn has different properties from any others due to our unique climate.
If all goes well, studies will expand to plants growing on the West Coast and the Highlands. The potential for commercial cultivation of this generally unloved plant could be quite literally gob-smacking.