The riches of the sea

TEXT: KIKI DEERE | PHOTOS © XULIO REY

Jutting out into the cool waters of the Atlantic off the coast of Galicia in northwestern Spain, the rocky peninsula of Cape Finisterre was once believed to be the end of the world (‘finis terrae’ is Latin for ‘the end of the world’). For hundreds of years, sailors considered this stretch of open sea to be among the most awe-inspiring and mystical on Earth. These days, the coast allures plenty of seaweed collectors, including experienced divers in search of some of the world’s best varieties of seaweed.

Family-run Galician company Porto- Muiños has been sourcing this underwater vegetable since the ’80s. Every week, seaweed collectors select top-quality specimens, transporting bundles of these healthy greens to the Porto-Muiños factory nearby, to be processed. For over 15 years, the company has been researching how best to cultivate rare species of algae in order to avoid their extinction in the wild.

We most readily associate seaweed with Japanese cuisine (‘nori’ is famously dried in sheets and used to roll sushi), and it is not quite part of our daily diet – not yet, that is. Co-founder of Porto-Muiños, Rosa Mirás, claims: “Seaweed has huge health benefits. It’s high in nutrients, rich in fibre, protein, iron and iodine, and has excellent antioxidant properties. It’s the food of the future.” Indeed, seaweed’s health boosting properties cannot be denied. As well as being packed with vitamins, it is an excellent source of minerals, including calcium, potassium and magnesium. “I hope that one day, seaweed becomes a staple and is found in everyone’s kitchen cupboards. It can be used daily, added to a soup or sprinkled on a little risotto, just as you would parsley. It can even be used in desserts.”

A sea of potential

With its variety of flavours, colours and textures, seaweed is an exceptionally versatile ingredient and can be used in most dishes, contributing not only to the taste of the dish but also adding the much-needed vitamins and minerals that our diets so often lack. Each and every species has particular characteristics that vary depending on where the plants grow, whether in the open sea, by the coast or on rocks. Translucent bright green sea lettuce, for example, has a strong clammy flavour and can be consumed raw in salads, or cooked in soups. ‘Wakame’, a dark green alga that has been consumed in Japan for centuries, has a strong flavour and texture reminiscent of Swiss chard. The light brown ’bifurcaria’, found in rock pools not far from the shore and known for its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, is said to have a subtle peach flavour. ‘Laurencia’, a red alga that grows in temperate and tropical waters, has spicy undertones and a peppery taste, making it ideal to be used as a condiment. With thousands of varieties, there is plenty to suit all tastes.

Educating on the nutritional benefits of seaweed

Rosa admits it was a challenge to educate people on the health benefits of seaweed. “People think of seaweed as something dirty that lies on the beach, something that is only used as garden fertiliser; something that’s not eaten.” But perceptions are changing. Worldwide, people are taking more of an interest in what they eat. Unlike a few decades ago, consumers now want to know the properties of the food they consume, nutritional value, total calories, and so on. “We have tried to make people aware of the health benefits of seaweed. We didn’t want consumers to change what they were eating but we wanted them to introduce seaweed as a new ingredient to their dishes. People were receptive to the idea and they soon started adding seaweed to soups, salads and even paella,” explains Rosa.

Over the course of the years, Rosa and her husband Antonio have chatted widely to the community to educate them on the many health benefits of seaweed. They have set up cookery classes for children and have given talks at schools to make little ones aware of its unique properties. At the Porto- Muiños plant, a biologist takes visitors on educational tours, accompanying guests to the seafront to learn about the great variety of algae present in the Atlantic. Tours also include cooking classes, where guests can sample different types of seaweed and exchange ideas and recipes. With plenty of inventive ways to use seaweed, it seems straightforward to incorporate this superfood into our everyday cooking: and with all of its nutritional values, why would we not?

portomuinos.com