Roger St. Pierre reveals one of the Celtic province’s star ingredients as news of the benefits of seaweed as a health food is spreading.
It wraps your trendy sushi; the Welsh call it laverbread and traditionally eat it for breakfast with cockles and bacon; it puts the wobble in your childhood jellies; it’s used in a soup to commemorate the birth of new babies in Korea and the worldwide food industry uses it extensively. And now edible seaweed is stepping forward as a favoured garnish for Michelin Star chasing chefs.
Is it a mere passing fad, like garnishes of kiwi fruit, edible petals and the current obsession with rocket leaves and balsamic concentrate, or is it a staple-to-be of gourmet cuisine?
Packed full of health-giving minerals and the source of more than 60 per cent of the world’s oxygen supply, this potential star of the contemporary kitchen – once mainly used as fertiliser to spread on the fields – is rapidly becoming big business in Brittany, France’s most westerly province.
A serious challenger to Burgundy as France’s culinary capital, Brittany is not only renowned for the plump artichokes, flavour-packed onions, giant cabbages and coloured cauliflowers of its fertile green fields but for the rich harvest of its seas. In these parts the classic plateau des fruits de mer reaches truly epic proportions, with its mass of whelks, mussels, oysters, clams, winkles, prawns and crab, all heaped on a bed of seaweed and, if you are lucky, topped with a succulent lobster.
Sea bass is cooked here over smoking fennel twigs, while unfamiliar species like gurnard and lamprey vie with sole, salmon and monkfish, and unctuous seafood soups and stews star on many a table.
The edible seaweeds of these often turbulent Atlantic waters are many, varied and rich in goodness and taste, while being minimalist in calories.
Take the so-called sea lettuce, for instance. It’s rich in sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, iodine, zinc and vitamins A and C.
Other major varieties harvested from Brittany’s beaches include wakamé, spiruline, kombu royal, sea spaghetti, lithothamne and the widely used nori and dulse. In all, close on 800 different seaweeds are native to these waters – the richest diversity of such species in the world, thanks to the rise and fall of up to 10 metres between low and high tide. Kelp needs to be submerged at all times; other species need regular exposure to direct sunlight.
The oldest known recipe for seaweed as a culinary ingredient dates from Ireland in the 14th Century, for a dish called pioka, with the seaweed boiled in milk for half an hour, left to cool and then used to make a flan that does not contain eggs.
To learn more, head for the dedicated Thalado Centre des Découverte des Algues (Seaweed Discovery Centre), in the delightfully pretty and historic port town of Roscoff, on Brittany’s rugged north coast and an easy drive from Dinard Airport.
Here there are fascinating displays and video presentations plus a year-round programme of special events designed to introduce visitors not just to the culinary, nutritional and dietary virtues of seaweed but to its many uses in the health and beauty and cosmetic industries. A seaweed wrap anyone?
Established back in 1985, Thalado was the brainchild of Bertrand de Kerdrel, who went on to be director of the Centre de Thalassothérapie de Roscoff, a spa renowned for its health-giving sea water treatments, which often uses seaweed.
Cookery lessons, lectures on the history of seaweed harvesting and a range of walks and seaweed collecting expeditions are all on offer at Thalado.
The centre’s own retail outlet and deli food shops throughout the town are packed with seaweed products – wakame, which grows up to three metres in length, makes a tasty mock lasagne, sea asparagus is packed with flavour, there’s a popular tapenade-style seaweed spread and fish can be wrapped in thin sheets of semi-dried seaweed to retain flavour during cooking.
The flavours can be strong, so it is advisable to use seaweed sparingly until the taste buds adjust to the taste.
Seaweed has been on this planet for at least 300 million years and the world’s trees are in fact descendants of green seaweed and are closer in DNA than a red seaweed is to a green variety.
Brittany’s leading chefs are increasingly using seaweed as an ingredient – as I found myself at a delightful hotel and restaurant in Trégueir, called, appropriately enough Aigue Rain – or, in English, Seaweed.
Thalado – Centre de Découverte des Algues, Rue Victor Hugo, 29680, Roscoff Cedex; www.thalado.fr.
By Roger St Pierre, member of British Guild of Travel Writers