In pictures: the Cornish seaweed harvest

In pictures: the Cornish seaweed harvest

by Emli Bendixen 19 July 2016

Emli Bendixen heads to the beautiful Cornish coast to watch seaweed pickers in action and discovers just how many different species of seaweed are making their way into our cooking.

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Emli Bendixen is a South Korean/Danish photographer based in Bristol and London.

Emli Bendixen is a South Korean/Danish photographer based in Bristol and London. Growing up in the Danish countryside amongst chickens, ducks, turkeys, a St Bernard and a pet pig, she developed an early affinity for all things natural and muddy.

Photographing food and people in particular, has led Emli to clients including The Guardian Weekend Magazine, FT Weekend Magazine, The Telegraph Magazine and The New York Times, as well as publications such as Hole & Corner, Port Magazine and The Plant.

The sun is breaking through, the sea is a calm azure blue, and as our boat sets out from the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, we pass three grey seals basking on rocks in the sunshine. I’m in the area to visit the Cornish Seaweed Company, an idea which began after founder Caro Warwick-Evans heard about the seaweed industry in Ireland on Radio 4’s Farming Today.

Seaweed is a rich and widely popular source of protein, fibre and around fifty-six different minerals. Widely popular in Southeast Asia and used in Ireland, Wales and Scotland, seaweed has yet to make a name for itself in England.

‘It got me thinking: why not do this in England?’ says Caro. ‘And it made perfect sense to team up with Tim [co-founder] as we both share a love of the sea and enjoy spending time outdoors.’

At the time, Caro – a graduate from Exeter University in Renewable Energy Engineering – had recently returned from working in Peru and Borneo, installing wind turbines, and was now working as a cleaner. Tim van Berkel, a tropical ecologist who’d set up the conservation charity Heart of Borneo Project, was also looking for a new challenge.

Dan, Joe and Tim
Sea lettuce

Caro started investigating and found there were very few guidelines and very little research carried out about seaweeds in England, so she and Tim travelled to Ireland to work for Algaran Seaweeds for a couple of weeks to learn more.

When they returned to Cornwall, however, they realised that things were very different there. ‘The climate is different, and the laws differ widely too,’ says Caro. ‘In England, the Crown Estate owns all the seabed up to thirteen miles from the coast and all that grows on it.’

Undeterred, Caro and Tim pressed on and Natural England consulted with them to write the code of conduct for seaweed picking, ensuring sustainability and minimum impact by looking at harvesting methods and seasonality.

Cornish Seaweed Co
Sea lettuce
Joe inspecting the sea spaghetti

Finally in 2012, the Cornish Seaweed Company was formed, now supplying Tesco and Waitrose and chefs including Nathan Outlaw, Andy Appleton at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in Cornwall as well as Poco in Bristol and Broadway Market. Joe, a former diving instructor and landscape gardener, joined the business in 2015.

Today, Tim, Joe and Dan are picking sea spaghetti and kombu while another team is picking green sea lettuce and gut weed along the coast, which is best done at low tide. ‘We cut everything with stainless steel scissors so the plants can regrow and we rotate our picking areas along the five-mile stretch of coast we have a licence to pick from,' explains Caro.

As we approach a cluster of rocks near the coast, the sea spaghetti is clearly visible with its long yellow fronds floating elegantly on the surface. There are other types of seaweed nearby as well; Tim hands me a small piece of dark red algae. ‘Truffle of the sea, this’, he says, ‘otherwise known as Pepper Dulse.’ The taste is fantastic, not the watery sensation I was expecting. Instead, it’s a real hit of peppery and earthy, nutty truffle that lingers.

Dried sea lettuce
Joe washing and draining the sea lettuce

There’s more – green sea lettuce, mild tasting but fresh and with a crisp bite to it. ‘We normally dry this to bring out the flavour,’ Joe explains. ‘It tastes great mixed it with dried gutweed.’ He picks a bit of green algae from the rocks nearby and hands it to me. ‘This is gutweed,’ he says. ‘It’s tastier when dried – or deep-fried as used in Chinese cooking and sold as crispy seaweed.’

Finally, there’s sea spaghetti, which can grow up to three metres in length and covers vast areas of rocky seabed. The taste has been described as asparagus but with a salty sweetness to it. The texture is incredibly satisfying too – al dente, fresh and light.

The wind has picked up and the water is cold but Joe and Dan jump in, scissors in hand, and return with large bunches of sea spaghetti trailing behind them in the water. On the boat, Tim fills sacks with the seaweed that’s brought in. Each sack can weigh up to 25kg when filled with fresh seaweed. Once dried, the weight is reduced to sixteen percent of its original weight.

After an hour of picking, we move the boat closer to the the rocky coastline where the kelp is standing in forests, their long blades bending where they meet the surface, giving off a palm tree-like appearance.

The kombu – famously used in Japanese cooking and known as the cuisine’s main source of umami – can be dried as dashi or eaten fresh in pesto. As well as adding incredible flavour, the seaweed helps the digestion of grains.

Sea spaghetti
Seaweed sacks

With its wide availability, delicious taste and health benefits, I wonder why seaweed isn’t more popular in this country. ‘I suppose even the name seaweed puts people off, and people associate it with the rotting plants they see on beach,' says Caro, but it looks like things are changing. She puts a lot of the success of the Cornish Seaweed Company down to timing – seaweed is now available to buy in supermarkets such as Tesco and Waitrose, and with an increased interest around health benefits in food, along with an awareness around sustainability and wild native foods, the seaweed has arrived at the right time.

With the boat full, we return to harbour where the heavy sacks of seaweed are loaded onto the van. We head back to the washing and drying facilities constructed and built by Caro and Tim on land they lease from dairy farmers. The seaweed is washed in fresh water and air-dried in custom built polytunnels before it’s packed and shipped from cabin offices in Falmouth.

The entire process is chemical-free and the seaweeds sold by the Cornish Seaweed Company are certified organic as such. 'In the future, we might start growing seaweed in tanks to meet demand and not overstretch the wild,’ says Caro. ‘At the moment, we have no impact on the environment and it’s important for us to keep it this way.’

All photography by Emli Bendixen.