The edible weed
There was still snow lying on the ground when I joined Caro and Tim from The Cornish Seaweed Company in late April. We headed off towards the Lizard peninsular, our quest was the harvest of the edible seaweed found on the lower shores of this ancient place. The van was packed with buckets, carrying sacks, wetsuits, thermos and digestives. Leaving their drying barn near Falmouth, driving south towards Coverack breaking away from traffic, main roads, people and pollution, we wound our way into the characteristic lanes of Cornwall finding our picking spot on the south west of the Lizard.
By now, the snow had turned to rain and bracing the biting wind, I followed them on a 30 minute hike, transversing cautiously on our descent along rugged coastal paths carrying the van’s contents, passing gorse and newly flowering violets. Along the rocks we stopped and writhed into our wetsuits, the wind biting at every exposed piece of flesh. Tired and full of anticipation we braced ourselves. There is no one about, not even a ship out at sea, just the crash of waves some distance from shore.
There is a spring tide, the time when the Sun, Moon and Earth form a line and the tide is at its maximum flood and recedes with the same force. We can see all the seaweed clinging to the lower rocks as we clamber down, there are many varieties but today we were harvesting Dulse, Kelp and sea spaghetti.
We climb into the water and semi submerged we are thrown into feeling the natural environment, the flood of cold water penetrating our suits. Work begins within the ebb and flow of the tide, the rhythmical pulse of the freezing sea guiding us to a virgin patch of weed. We keep warm by moving between patches which also reduces the effect of harvesting and within two hours we leave the sea, heading to the airy barn where the weed is dried overnight before packing.
With 25 kilos of wet seaweed on our backs, we head up the coastal path warming from the cold. We leave the Lizard, driving away, as the sun is beaming through the clouds. As we look back down the hill, over the rocks and out to sea, there is a long strip of twinkling water amid the white horses and it is not difficult to imagine a time when seaweed was a staple for the inhabitants of this island.
Seaweed has been used as a resource in some surprising ways; in yarn, in glass-making and in the production of cellophane.
The first mention in written form was in the latter half of the fifth century and Dulse, the ‘red weed’, was eaten with oatmeal in a thick broth by Scottish monks who supplemented their diets with it.
It has been used for generations to fertilise the land, because its properties have the ability to concentrate minerals which renders them the most potent source of nutrient for the cultivation of vegetables.
In her book ‘Food in England’ published in 1954, Dorothy Hartley gives a chapter to the edible seaweeds and proclaims that their high mineral content are a valuable form of diet and ‘in some cases have genuine medical value’. It is excellent for digestive health increasing the good bacteria in the gut, high in nutrients and low in calories. Its detox properties are well documented and research from Kyoto university has shown that fibre from brown seaweed lowered blood pressure and reduced the risk of stroke in animals predisposed to cardiovascular problems.
Culinary speaking, varieties like pepper dulce and carragen have unique flavours and characteristics. The former is changeable on the palate; initially it is the salty sea, then a bitter sweet chlorophyll and finally white pepper. The latter is a natural thickening agent and a good substitute for animal gelatin and presently Caro is experimenting, using this versatile plants properties in making pannacotta.
Caro and Tim have been granted the first license in England to harvest, and that took a long time as so many parties were involved; from the Duchy to the Crown Estate.
Their patch on the Lizards south west shore is now fully regulated by the food standards agency and Caro and Tim test the water and weed quality regularly so their customers like the river cottage canteen and deli in Plymouth and the Dorchester Hotel in London are ensured of an excellent product.
Both are very relaxed people, their pace of life and healthy attitude are conducive to the environment they are in; what a lovely way to turn a coin.
With backgrounds in science and mathematics and global experience in conservation and renewable energy, it seemed a natural progression to start the Cornish seaweed company and both Caro and Tim's understanding of the need for a sustainable way of living, concentrating on a lifestyle which is both ethically and environmentally sound, led them to the sea and the fruits it offers.
Sometimes you don’t realise what you have on your doorstep, or coastline in this instance.