Photo by Patricia Esteve
It’s not enough these days for a food to feed us, it also has to have magical, health-giving properties; it has to lower our cholesterol, regulate our bowels and give our skin and hair a young and healthy glow. But among the fat-eating yoghurts and cancer-beating ‘nutraceuticals’, there’s one true superfood that you don’t hear that much about.
Seaweeds are some of the oldest living things on the planet, and one of the few truly wild plants left. They’re self-sufficient and a sustainable resource, and are chock-full of all the nutrients they need, which happen to be pretty much all the nutrients we need.
A 2001 study by the Universidad Complutense de Madrid found that seaweeds contain all the essential elements the human body requires. The roll-call of vitamins and minerals reads like a chemistry textbook: vitamins A, C, E and B12, iron, iodine, cobalt, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and more calcium than even milk. Not content with containing all the essential amino acids, they also contain nine non-essential ones. No land-based vegetable can beat them on protein levels. They’re good for the immune system, cell reproduction and function and the metabolism. They help the intestines do their job and fight nasty free radicals.
It’s odd that, in a country with so much coastline and such a love for seafood, seaweeds are almost unseen on the table here in Spain. Galician Clemente Fernández Sáa and his brother Fermín thought it was odd too. Born and bred in one of the parts of Spain most intimately connected with the sea (“We always say our mother gave birth to us ‘amidst the seaweed’,” he joked), the brothers knew seaweed had traditionally been used as fertiliser, and that only sailors would eat it, which they did in the old days to stave off scurvy.
As ecologists and vegetarians, they were interested in including seaweed in their own diet, but the only examples they could find were imported from Japan. So in 1996 they started Algamar. With the help of experts from Spain and the rest of Europe, and the support of local universities, the brothers embarked on a study of the native seaweed species to discover which would be most suitable for commercialisation as food. Today they sell six different types of dried seaweed and more than a dozen food products made with these algae, including pastas, patés, soups and rice dishes. All are certified as ecological products by the Autoridad Oficial de Control de la Agricultura Ecológica in Spain.
The seaweeds for Algamar are gathered off the Galician coast, close to the Atlantic Islands Natural Reserve, a rich marine habitat where great ocean currents converge and which, funnily enough, lies on the same latitude as the coasts of Japan, one of the world’s greatest seaweed producers. The quality of the seaweeds is guaranteed by scientific studies completed by the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, the Universities of Santiago and La Coruña and the Autonomous Government of Galicia. The company has a ‘Waters Exploitation Plan’ approved by the fisheries authority, which guarantees that the resources taken from the sea are renewable and maintain the balance of the ecosystem.
The seaweed is hand-picked underwater by rocky shores. Each plant is harvested at its optimum time, after it has released its spores, to ensure there is new growth the next year and a sustainable supply. After picking, the algae is taken to specially constructed drying rooms where they’re dried at low temperatures to maintain as much of their nutritional value as possible. Patches of white may appear on the surface of the seaweed—this is just the plant’s own natural salts, which act as a preservative. Once dried, the algae will keep for years and can be easily stored in a cool dry place in a sealed container.
Because they’re sold dried, all seaweeds will need to be soaked before using. Some can be eaten raw, others will need cooking, perhaps boiling before being added to dishes such as stews and stir-fries. In such cases, it’s a good idea to keep the boiling water for use in, say, a soup, to avoid throwing all those good nutrients down the drain. Most seaweeds can be used like any other vegetable and they combine excellently with onions, tomatoes, rice and, of course, fish and seafood.
For people starting out with seaweed, Fernández recommends beginning with the following Algamar products:
Wakame (Undaria pinnatifida)
“It’s good both cooked and raw,” says Fernández. “It’s very versatile and can be used in many dishes, such as soups, rice dishes, pasties, or just boiled as a vegetable.” Exceptionally rich in calcium, it’s good for the digestion and a recent study has found it helps to burn fatty tissue. In Japan it’s often used in miso soup and salads. Soak for 15 minutes and then either use raw or boil for 20 minutes in soup or with other vegetables. It can also be added to onions that have been softened and browned in oil to make a tasty pie filling or pizza topping.
Espagueti de Mar (Himanthalia elongata)
“Another one that’s good cooked and raw. It’s great in traditional Galician empanadas,” recommends Fernández. “It’s very rich in fibre and iron, and has a flavour that’s somewhat like cuttlefish. With its distinctive texture and flavour, it’s the seaweed with the most personality.” Soak for 30 minutes then use raw in salads or boil with other veg for 20-30 minutes. It can also be added to stews or rice dishes. For an interesting veggie alternative to squid, blanch first in boiling water, dip in breadcrumbs and deep-fry. Serve with lemon wedges.
Dulse (Palmaria palmata)
This purple seaweed has a long tradition as a foodstuff in Ireland, and was highly valued by seafarers for its high levels of vitamin C. Its mild flavour and ease of use (it only needs soaking for a couple of minutes if used raw and should be given only the briefest of cooking times) make it ideal for a quick soup or salad.
You can purchase Algamar products in health food stores. Try Biospace (Valencia 186, Barcelona) and the Veritas health food supermarket chain
For more information on the various types of seaweed and how to prepare them, check out the Algamar website www.algamar.com
The Fernández brothers have also published two books on the subject: Algas de Galicia, Alimento y Salud – Las Verduras del Océano Atlántico and Recetas Con Algas Atlánticas.
First published December 2007