Dulseville: Drought-Free Farming
It’s cold and impenetrably black at 5 a.m. when Larch Hanson emerges from his home in the coastal woods of Maine, strides across a dirt road and out onto a rocky beach. Long and lean, he cuts an eerie figure in black wet suit and cap.
At the beach he splashes into the water and vaults into a snub-nose garvey. He pulls anchor, brings the outboard motor to life with a roar and heads away from shore. His day as a harvester of sea vegetables has begun.
When Hanson returns, his boat will be filled to the gunwales with kelp, nori , alaria or dulse, all edible sea vegetables. He will hardly have time to dry and package them before a thriving mail-order business claims all he harvests.
Commonly eaten in Asia and many European countries, sea vegetables are gobbled up by the ton in the United States too. Anyone who has eaten sushi has set his teeth to nori , one of the most common sea vegetables. It’s that thin, dark, almost elastic wrapping around sushi rolls, and if you taste it carefully, you’ll get a hint of salt, of sweet and of fresh sea brine.
Loaded with essential minerals--including calcium, potassium, iron, iodine, magnesium and many trace minerals--sea vegetables lend a variety of subtle, intriguing flavors, colors and textures to food. Though most commonly used in Japanese and macrobiotic cooking, they can be added to soups, salads, stir-fries and other dishes.
Sea vegetable derivatives are also blended with other foods to enhance their consistency. For example, most brands of ice cream or cream cheese contain carrageen, a sea-vegetable extract that gives a smooth texture.
Japan has long been the world’s largest supplier of sea vegetables. But with the proliferation of Japanese restaurants and styles of eating, and the increasing popularity of macrobiotic diets, a thriving sea vegetable industry is emerging in this country.
Hanson has been an industry pioneer in a small but important way. He is regarded among sea vegetable harvesters as a purist, because of the care he takes in both the harvesting and drying of sea vegetables. The standards he’s established have inspired the rest of the industry.
He heads his boat toward Corea, Me., and an outcropping of golden rock called Sheep Island, which he has climbed and slithered over since he began harvesting sea vegetables 15 years ago. He anchors the boat near a rock and climbs out, walking gingerly over the slippery, richly hued tapestry of sea plants that range from bright-green sea lettuce to coal-gray nori , to deep-burgundy dulse.
Today Hanson concentrates on dulse, which grows in shady crevices like thick, wavy hair. He spreads the fingers of both hands wide, runs them up into the plant, grabs on and pulls down and away from the rock, his fists full. “You have to harvest it like this, to avoid getting your hands torn up by the rocks,” he says.
Crawling about the rock like a spider, he quickly fills three bushel baskets, then hops into the boat and rows over to a spot in the water where a thick stand of kelp waves about under the surface.
Using a stubby, curved knife, he grabs a long, translucent brown frond. “The kelp is usually best March through May,” he says as he whacks it off. He lays it alongside the dulse in a compartment of his plain pine boat. He’s never painted the boat because he fears the lead in marine paint might leech into the sea vegetables. Instead, he treats the boat with vegetable oil. He’s also built special compartments for his catch so no fuel can wash up on the vegetables. And Hanson harvests only from clean, remote waters.
The boat is nearly full and now he heads back toward shore and another huge rock. He spreads white nylon mesh over the outcropping, which is blistering hot from the sun, and spreads the dulse on it in a single layer to dry for the rest of the day. He will return before dark to pack it in burlap bags, which he lugs up the beach, across the road and through a thicket to home.
Kelp, which can grow to be 10 feet long, is dried in a different manner. “We call this hanging up the laundry,” Hanson says, as he drapes a frond over a line strung between posts. “The kelp wind-dries in an afternoon, then we bring it in. Once dry, the sea vegetables will keep for years.”
Hanson generally harvests about a ton of vegetables a day, which dries down to about 200 pounds. Working with an apprentice, he harvests about 3,000 pounds a year. His harvest season, which he refers to as “haying,” begins in very early spring, when the water is still cold and the plants are achieving most of their growth. It continues with less frequency through summer and into fall.
What Hanson doesn’t sell through mail-order will go to Maine Coast Sea Vegetables of Franklin, Me., a company that markets nationwide and into Canada. The company began in the early ‘70s, when owner Shepard Erhardt began harvesting sea vegetables for his own use. Interest spread, the company grew, and it now markets about 13 tons of dried sea vegetables each year.
“The demand grew as the natural and macrobiotic movements grew,” says Carl Karusch, business manager. “And it just hasn’t stopped growing.
All of the sea vegetables marketed by the company are wild and are painstakingly harvested by hand. In contrast, most of the sea vegetables produced in Japan are farm-raised because of that country’s huge demand and dwindled natural resources.
One company in the U.S. has taken its lead from Japan and is farming nori in the cool waters of Washington State’s Puget Sound.
American Sea Vegetables Co. of Vashon Island, Wash., is the brainchild of John Merrill, who has a doctorate in marine botany, and his partner John Olson. When the Washington state Department of Natural Resources developed an interest in making use of the state’s renewable tideland resources, including sea vegetables, Merrill studied the possible production of carrageen.
His research led him to Japan, where he saw the widespread nori production, and an environment almost identical to that of Puget Sound. He gave up on carrageen and he and Olson formed their company, harvesting their first commercial nori crop in 1987.
Nori is grown on panels of man-made fiber netting, 54 feet by 4 1/2 feet, which are floated on the surface of the water. As the plant matures it produces spores that are released from the leaves of blades. In nature, the spores prefer to settle on the interior of oyster or clam shells, where they burrow into the superficial layer and grow. To recreate this process, Olson and Merrill settle spores on cleaned oyster shells in water in a greenhouse.
“We grow the spores in January and February,” Merrill says. The plants, which resemble thin filaments, grow through the summer, then release another set of spores in the fall. “To catch the second spore release,” Merrill says, “we take the shells and put them on a tarp in the water, then lay the nets on the tarp.”
After a couple of days, the spore-covered nets are transferred to the nursery stage. “This is a critical point,” Merrill points out, “because every organism in the sea wants to live on the nets. To allow the nori to grow, all of those organisms must be kept at bay.”
Nori is an intertidal species that dries out when the tide recedes and survives while in the dried-out stage, while other organisms die. “We lift the nets out of the water every couple of days and let them sun-dry, to kill any grazing or fouling organisms on the nets,” Merrill says.
After about 30 days, the young plants have grown enough to cover the nets, leaving no room for other organisms, so the netting no longer has to be lifted out of the water. In another 15 days, when the plants are about three to seven inches long, they are ready to harvest.
The nets are brought out of the water and over the side of a small boat that is fitted with a harvester, which resembles an upside-down lawn mower. The nori hangs from the net, and the harvester cuts it off.
At a shore-based processor, the nori is ground up, mixed with water and turned into sheets in a process similar to papermaking. Dried at low heat for about two hours, the sheets emerge a glistening greenish-black.
Most natural-foods stores, and some supermarkets, offer a variety of sea vegetables, or sea vegetable products and mixtures. Their healthfulness is undisputed, their alluring flavors and textures a bonus.
This delicious soup is light and clean with the flavors of miso, spring vegetables and delicate wakame. It is surprisingly satisfying as well. I like to serve it as a first course to cleanse the palate.
SPRING VEGETABLE SOUP WITH WAKAME
5 (4-inch) strips dried wakame
1 small onion, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced paper-thin
1 small (5-inch), thin carrot, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced paper-thin
1/2 small turnip, peeled, and sliced paper-thin
1 clove garlic, sliced crosswise paper-thin
1 thin (1/8-inch) coin fresh ginger, peeled
2 teaspoons barley miso
4 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 heaping cup broccoli florets
Place wakame strips in medium-sized bowl, cover with cold water and let soak until strips become pliable, about 5 minutes. Drain, rinse and cut into 1 x 1/2-inch pieces. Reserve.
Place onion, carrot, turnip, garlic and ginger in medium-size pot over high heat with 4 cups water. Bring to boil, reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer until vegetables are nearly soft through, about 8 minutes.
In small bowl mix miso with 1/4 cup hot vegetable cooking liquid, soy sauce and vinegar. Stir into vegetables, taste for seasoning, and add wakame and broccoli florets. Cover and cook until broccoli is bright green and tender, but still has slight crunch, 8 to 10 minutes.
Taste soup for seasonings, adding additional soy, if desired. Remove ginger coin and divide soup among 4 small, warmed bowls or 2 large bowls. Makes 2 large or 4 small servings.
This is really more of a condiment than a salad, but with its wonderful texture and deep, rich flavor, you’ll be surprised at how you keep filling your plate. The Aokizami kombu is sliced very, very thin before drying so that it reconstitutes into terrific, confetti-like strips. If you can’t find this exact style of kombu, use any that is either cut in small pieces or thin strips. It will keep indefinitely if stored air-tight in the refrigerator.
1/2 cup dried Aokizami kombu
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Japanese sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon chile oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Place kombu in small bowl, cover with water and soak until strips are nearly soft but still retain some crunch, about 15 minutes. Drain, pat dry with towel and place in medium-sized bowl.
In small bowl whisk together soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and chile oil. Pour over kombu and toss until kombu is moistened with sauce.
Sprinkle sesame seeds over kombu, toss well and transfer to small serving bowl. Makes 2 servings.