There is a certain romanticism to the cultivation of Mara Seaweed, obtained from the wild waters around the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Scotland. It’s growth relies on several factors: the cold, nutrient rich waters it inhabits, but also the gravitational pull of the moon and tides, evoking a rather mythical relationship between the earth’s fruits and its elements. Former journalist, Fiona Houston, lived in Washington DC before moving back home to Scotland, drawn to exploring the natural oceans that surround the coastline, a pastime which became an enterprise when she became founder and CEO of Mara Seaweed. ‘The United Kingdom has an incredible natural capital,’ she tells me, referring to an island submerged in kelp forest. ‘But perhaps it’s not valued as much as we’d like.’ These forests, covering the bottom of our rugged coastline, are not only as ecologically restorative as the Amazon rainforest, but are one of the most diverse eco-systems on the planet. As with any heritage that has a limited landscape, she believes that the importance lies in ‘telling the story of the ingredient,’ a main priority for Fiona and this forgotten food, as we look to new ways of bringing it back to the menu.
Mara Seaweed was founded in 2011, when information surrounding the harvesting of seaweed was rare. Now, ten years later, the difference Fiona tells me, is like ‘night and day’. ‘We were ahead of our time,’ she says, ‘and although the world is catching up, it’s still not what you would call mainstream.’ Endangered, is a word used by many to describe this food group, not at all due to lack of supply, (seaweed is both regenerative and restorative), but in the demise of labourers armed with the skill and knowledge it takes to farm it. ‘We lost the link to the land,’ Fiona says. ‘People in coastal communities moved away, so direct access was limited.’ This is where Fife based Mara Seaweed, focused their industry as both a food brand and also an aquaculture and production company, covering all aspects of seaweed from ocean to plate. With its principles grounded in both social and environmental concerns, sustainability is a concept at the top of their agenda. As with all produce, there is a wealth of history when it comes to its cultivation, and the growing of seaweed epitomises this. By analysing the low tides, Fiona began to discover an abundance of incredible seaweeds within the country’s natural landscape. Although there is a thriving market for it across the globe, mainly in Asia, where seaweed is a staple property of the nation’s diet, the concern is that here in the United Kingdom, the story of seaweed has yet to be communicated widely on the plate. Mara Seaweed intends to mark that change. In fact, the journey which Fiona and her team have embarked on, investing in its cultivation and harvesting, allows for a rediscovery of our local food systems, fortifying them for the future.
The extensive health benefits are also a draw, relevant to a common society, so focused on wellness and the environmental impact of diet, and seaweed is often used to lower sodium salt intake, a staple alternative to those seeking a healthier lifestyle. The complex nutritional benefits of seaweed are varied, its location offering a distinct flavour native to these parts. The production process begins with the harvesting, alternating between wild and farmed, according to season. The latter extends the variety of species available depending on how it’s cultivated. Comparatively, the seasonal aspect of wild harvesting is governed by the tide of the sea, and reliant entirely upon the earth’s elements for its growth. ‘By the following spring,’ Fiona tells me, ‘you don’t even know where they’ve been.’ The production of farmed seaweed begins with the aqua culture, when sori is sprayed onto a rope around the months of October and November. Fiona talks me through the process. ‘It establishes itself on the rope over winter and takes off in spring time, growing up to 50cm per day.’ Seaweed absorbs its nutrients through fronds rather than roots and these oscillate in the water, gathering nutrients in the process. Its regenerative environmental impact is considerable, as seaweed absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen into the air, where an increasing amount of carbon is restored. The crop of seaweed is then gathered by boats during May and June.
This commitment to a sustainable environment has led to accreditation by the Soil Association, who monitor their position and practice each year. Like many types of produce, there are clear distinctions between quantity, rarity and quality. The variety of seaweed is widespread, from the rare Pepper Dulse, which is wild harvested and has a flavour complexity similar to that of truffle, to the Purple Dulse and Brown Kelp, which can grow up to 5 metres in length, capable of catering to a much wider market. After harvesting, the seaweed enters the drying process, using low temperature heat, not high enough to cook it, but warm enough to extract much of the moisture. ‘The difference in the flavour is extraordinary,’ Fiona says. ‘It’s all about quality for us. Both technical quality and taste. So when you buy it, you know exactly what you’re getting.’ Across the coastline, stretching 30km, local fisherman take responsibility for the harvesting, with Fiona and her team relying heavily on their in-depth knowledge of the ocean. The impact this has had on the local community is positive. At a time where the importance of locally sourced produce is paramount due to the adverse effects of climate change, it may seem unnecessary to import seaweed from the other side of the world when we can cultivate it right here on or doorstep. The work of Mara Seaweed supports the collaboration between the company and community, where the team of local fishermen have fostered a resilience against the cold, wet and dangerous environments. She values their ‘expertise in the handling of the boats, making uncertain conditions predictable for safety.’ There is also a generational benefit to fortifying the industry of working alongside the ocean. ‘Seaweed harvesting supports coastal communities,’ Fiona says, ‘and there is a new generation of fishermen looking forward towards their future. If you want a life associated with the ocean, you have to look towards sustainability.’
As many consumers, now more than ever, are looking at the environmental impact their own diet may have on the earth’s resources, perhaps an ingredient both regenerative and restorative, provides the ideal place to start this exploration. When contemplating the size and wealth of the ocean, it’s hard not to see the value of the eco-systems that live within it, and as society strives towards a more sustainable influence, perhaps the goal is not to narrow one’s diet but rather broaden it, to include as great a variety of produce as possible. The precious heritage of seaweed is a balance of both tradition and modernity, available to us in abundance. It is one of the true riches of our oceans, and so perhaps one can see how a sense of romanticism might help tell this story, how the cultivation of seaweed involving the oceans, the moon and the tide, can transform our diets beyond the ordinary, towards something far more extraordinary.
Louise Leverett is a writer and novelist currently living in London. She has recently completed a diploma in ‘Advanced Gastronomy’ at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Follow her on Instagram @louiseleverett