Delicious and nutritious seaweed is one of the wild foods attracting the interest of contemporary chefs and foragers, especially here on Vancouver Island, which boasts more varieties of seaweed than anywhere else in the world.
Written and photographed by Cinda Chavich
Dr. Bridgette Clarkston reaches down and ruffles the glistening tendrils of purple laver clinging to the rocks at low tide.
This edible seaweed — Pyropia or Porphyra spp. — is also known as nori, which is chopped and formed into thin sheets to wrap the ubiquitous sushi roll. But here it’s fresh, almost oily looking, slicked like a purple pompadour across the intertidal zone at the edge of Frank Island near Tofino.
“This is the most common and widely eaten seaweed in the world,” says Clarkston, holding out a translucent, ruddy specimen. “Pyropia is only one cell layer thick, yet it survives the beating of the waves and the beating of the sun. An incredible species.”
Seaweed flourishes by the seashore all around our coasts — a tangle of bulbous kelp at the high water mark, electric green sea lettuce floating in tidal pools, little sacks of yellow Halosaccion glandiforme clinging to exposed rocks, Fucus distichus (a.k.a. rockweed), with its puffed, lobster claw tips, scattering on the sand as the crashing tide recedes. Canada’s West Coast is home to 700 different species of seaweed, more underwater biodiversity than any other place on the planet. There are 32 kinds of kelp alone, from winged kelp (Alaria marginata or wild wakame) and laminaria to giant bull kelp, one of the fastest growing plants on earth.
Clarkston is a UBC professor and a seaweed expert. She’s co-authored Pacific Seaweeds with fellow academic and Bamfield kelp producer Dr. Louis Druehl, and recently published the pamphlet A Field Guide to Seaweeds of the Pacific Northwest.
It’s with that illustrated pamphlet in hand that I am peering into tide pools and examining the rocky shore on Chesterman Beach, along with a dozen other curious beachcombers.
It’s all part of the inaugural, one-day Seaweed Fest Tofino, a chance to dive in with both gumboots and learn how to identify, sustainably forage, cook, preserve and eat the healthy bounty of sea vegetables literally floating on our doorstep.
Marine plants fall into two distinct categories: marine grasses and algae. All species of seaweed are algae, from microscopic organisms to the world’s largest Macrocystis pyrifera or giant (macro) kelp that can grow 18 inches a day and up to 100 feet in a single season.
While it may appear to be mere flotsam to be avoided on beach walks, kelp is one of the world’s marvels. At the surface, bull kelp forms a thick mat of wide brown blades held afloat by bulbous, gas-filled balls, but beneath the waves the plant’s long stems (stipes) are anchored to the ocean floor by finger-like holdfasts, a watery glade sheltering fish, sea otters and other marine mammals.
“The bull and macro kelp form the canopy of dense underwater forests, like the big spruce or Douglas firs, with the smaller kelp and other creatures in the understory,” explains Clarkston, as she demonstrates the proper way to harvest kelp.
Only shear off the tops of the plants, she says, leaving the lateral reproductive blades (sporophylls) at the base, which carry the plant’s spores, to insure it can reproduce and will continue growing. This way, the same plant may be harvested throughout the season.
It’s how Dr. Louis Druehl, a former professor and kelp researcher at Simon Fraser University, cultures wild kelp at Canadian Kelp Resources, a Bamfield-based company that supplies chefs and consumers with delicious and nutritious sea vegetables. Hand harvesting kelp in the clean waters of Barkley Sound, “with a canoe and a box cutter,” Druehl sells a variety of dried kelp products, from kombu (Laminaria) and bull kelp (Nereocystis), to sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima) and macro kelp (Macrocystis).
Commercial harvesters must be licensed, but individuals may harvest up to 100 pounds of seaweed in B.C. without a license, provided it is collected by hand (no raking) and does not harm the plant.
Every type of seaweed is different, but generally it’s safe to trim off a portion of each blade and leave the plants with their holdfast structures still connected to the rocks. Never take more than 10 per cent. Otherwise, wait for a high tide or storm, and gather the bull kelp, rockweed and other seaweed that’s deposited on the beach.
Closer to home, you can learn to safely harvest various types of seaweed in a workshop with Sooke marine biologist Amanda Swinimer of Dakini Tidal Wilds. Forage for seaweed with Swinimer at low tide or suit up for a snorkeling adventure to explore the rich and magical kelp ecosystem.
Swinimer prunes the wild kelp by hand, then dries and packages it. She sells a variety of seaweed products, from whole dried seaweed, to medicinal salves and teas, online and through local markets. At Lifestyle Markets in Victoria, her dried seaweed is also available in bulk.
COOKING WITH KELP
Seaweed has been consumed by humans for centuries, in Asian countries like Japan and Korea, in Ireland and Wales, and by Indigenous people in North America. Today aquatic plants are harvested for food, fertilizer and for the alginates used to thicken products, from ice cream and yogurt to toothpaste.
In B.C., red laver has long been collected by coastal First Nations. Traditionally, laver was gathered by women in canoes, then piled on the beaches and lightly smoked or air-dried on cedar frames. Added to soups or stews as a seasoning, or enjoyed as a crispy snack dipped in eulachon grease, seaweed provides protein, iron, Vitamins A and C, fibre and micronutrients.
Today, seaweed is also one of the wild foods attracting the interest of contemporary chefs and foragers.
All seaweed is edible, but some types are tastier than others. Try the blades and stipes of bull kelp, the long ruffled ribbons of winged kelp (Alaria), sugar kelp, feather boa (Egregia), sea lettuce (Ulva) and laver.
Our morning of beachcombing nets several varieties of sea vegetables, and so it’s time to learn how to cook and preserve our harvest with Hélène Descoteaux of the Tofino Community Food Initiative. She instructs us to soak and wash the bull kelp bulbs and hollow stems in cold water, then lightly peel away the tough outer “bark” before slicing it thin for pickling. With a classic bread and butter pickle brine, we create a glistening, golden kelp pickle.
Later, at 1909 Kitchen, Chef Paul Moran treats us to a vegetarian feast — from smoky alder and kelp dashi broth with slivered kelp noodles and a crunchy seaweed salad, to crispy pizza topped with bull kelp and feta, and even a candied feather boa kelp and sea buckthorn dessert.
Other Islanders are adding kelp to their products too. Sheringham Distillery’s Seaside Gin, recently named best contemporary gin in the world at the World Gin Awards, counts winged kelp among its local botanicals.
The Renew green tea broth from Silk Road Tea, designed to make a revitalizing soup, contains seaweed and spirulina in addition to other wild plants.
Tofino Brewing Company adds 10 pounds of dried kelp to every batch of their Kelp Stout. Then Tina Windsor of Picnic Charcuterie uses their stout to brine her smoked hams and serves it in sandwiches topped with kelp salad. Wolf in the Fog chef Nick Nutting uses slivered kelp in seaweed, daikon and puffed wild rice salad, and tops his tuna poke plate with shards of crispy fried nori.
Chef Carmen Ingham, who recently left Victoria’s OLO restaurant to head up the kitchens at The Wickaninnish Inn, says he loves cooking with seaweed. Ingham has created an elegant tasting menu starring seaweed, from his albacore tuna with apple dashi and pickled kelp to tender braised pork cheek, cooked with kelp, for its natural hit of umami and its connection to the sea.
“I like our tasting menu to represent different parts of the Island, and seaweed is exactly what works to create that oceany, beachy flavour,” says Ingham who uses fresh sea lettuce and nori, pickles rockweed tips and adds dried kombu to dressings and marinades.
“I want my food to have a sense of familiarity, but it should also have a sense of place.”
It’s always seaweed season on Vancouver Island, but especially as the waters warm and the sun shines. That’s when the kelp beds flourish and the perfect time to eat your sea veggies.
This article is from the July/August 2019 issue of YAM.