Could seaweed be today's answer to tomorrow's food shortage?
Seaweed is the sustainable superfood that you never knew you needed. We get to grips with the slippery stuff that’s saving our oceans, as well as our food
- By Gareth May -
In the pantheon of unappreciated foods seaweed is pretty much the don. As idiosyncratic as they come, the marine algae's properties – strictly speaking it's not a plant – read like the wish list of a health-conscious, whisky-drinking eco warrior: it's a cure for hangovers, a potential cure for cancer, it (could) clean our oceans like Henry the Hoover on crack, and its super qualities are so off the chart it really should wear Spandex and a cape.
The 'weed' moniker really doesn't do this wonder stuff justice. To truly appreciate seaweed we have to ditch the umbrella term and say it like it is.
There are over 12,000 species of seaweed in the world, from the green dreadlocks of the brilliantly named bladderwrack to the foot-tickling frilly fronged sea hedgehog (but the less we say about creephorn the better). Around 600 of these grow along our Great British shores, though as a nation we typically harvest just 35 varieties.
The Cornish Seaweed Company are such farmers of the sea, snipping and clipping kelp and co since 2012. England's first-ever harvesting and processing edible seaweed company, the team says the best way to get onboard with seaweed is to treat the algae like a "brand-new group of vegetables", and champions each species as unique from one another as carrots are from broccoli.
"Anything you do with vegetables, you can do with seaweed," says co-founder Caroline Warwick-Evans, before chanting methods of cooking (and munching) like a water baby's Christmas list. "Boiling, steaming, chopping into a salad, having as a snack… Seaweed is so underappreciated. It's the best food you could eat for your body, inside and out."
Anything you do with vegetables, you can do with seaweed
It's this diversity that makes seaweed such a slippery hit with chefs, including fellow Kernow resident and two-Michelin-starred chef Nathan Outlaw, who says it's each species' unique properties and flavour profile that elevate the foodstuff. Pickled dulse, for instance, is an excellent accompaniment for rich dishes as it cuts through fat, while kombu is great infused into stocks to give more body and depth to the dish.
"Each species lends a slightly different note so will give a different finish to whichever dish is cooked using it," he explains. "We tend to use seaweed dried, pickled and for infusing."
His dried gutweed and sea lettuce hollandaise-style sauce sounds good enough to drown for. Likewise, the seaweed chutney with a mix of sea lettuce, nori and dulse, made by Eric Guignard, owner and head chef at acclaimed Surbiton restaurant The French Table.
Johnnie Crowne, formerly at Michelin starred The Harwood Arms, and founder of Nest, the pop-up restaurant celebrating British produce, uses seaweed to add extra flavour to fish and meat stocks and enhance the natural flavour of other ingredients in a dish, often adding sea herbs to give punchy mineral notes to recipes.
"It comes down to all seaweed and sea herbs having good levels of umami, which really helps to balance different flavour profiles together," he says. "We use seaweed from Norfolk but the best stuff comes from a few hidden bays in Anglesey [where they pop-up for three weeks in the Boathouse Restaurant every August]."
Aside from the random mention on innovative menus, the many faces of seaweed are rarely spotted outside of a restaurant. We certainly lag behind in our admiration, even if our Celtic regions have a rich history of using the likes of kombu.
Seaweed's been stabbed on to the forks of civilisations since the dawn of man. Eaten by Inuits in Alaska and Okinawans in south Japan, after the Vikings introduced it to hungry British tums as a foraged survival food we took to it in our own way. Scottish farmers fed kombu to sheep to sweeten the meat, the Irish munched on dulse to stave off the thudding morning-after headache, and in Wales laverbread is still a popular local delicacy.
In the modern world Asia leads the way in seaweed consumption, harvesting over 90% of the world's farmed varieties. In Japan, China and Korea, seaweed cultivation is a mega coastal industry with nori the most-plucked from the sea's bosom.
Get your head around some of the better-known edible varieties
Eight million tonnes of seaweed is produced annually across the globe with an estimated value of nearly £3.5bn, making it one of the most valuable aquaculture crops on the planet.
It's also one of the most sustainable crops we have at our disposal so there's an ethical angle here too, as seaweed is considered one of the foremost foods for the future to combat food scarcity.
It could also help to solve sea pollution. Dr Charles Yarish of Stamford's Marine Biotechnology Lab is developing a method that utilises the natural extraction capabilities of seaweeds and bivalves as a 'bioremediation tool' for the world's seas or, in layman's terms, in the right conditions seaweed could become the ocean's janitor, mopping up toxins and man-made chemicals.
The world's cupboard is running bare and seaweed is bloody everywhere, so I'm pretty sure rock pools wouldn't mind if we pinch a bit.
Eight million tonnes of seaweed is produced annually
Such a diet would conveniently boost the human of tomorrow's health. Seaweed is packed full of all 56 minerals the body needs including iodine, protein, calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium (it's for this reason that seaweed extract is used in many processed foods such as chocolate and yoghurts and also sold as vitamin supplements in heath food shops).
It's also incredibly low in fat, vegan and gluten free, and contains 85% less sodium than table salt, making it a genuine alternative to that bête noire of seasonings.
The Chinese in particular are currently making advances in seaweed research, working specifically on the notion that species such as laminaria and saccharina may be able to treat cancer.
Joo Won, the head chef at Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows, is certainly flying the fine fettle flag. As well as 'that full umami taste' kombu gives his dishes he's also all about the health kick. "Kombu is full of nutrition, which benefits our essential body function as well as keeping our hair and skin looking good and clean," he says. It's part of the reason algae not only sells as a food product but a beauty one too. Seaweed: it's not just a pretty face.