The Seaweed Renaissance

Food to furniture, a look at seaweed’s time in the sun.

Iolo
Iolo
Jun 6, 2019 · 7 min read

Written by Iolo Cowell
Creative Intern at VBAT

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Group Stand by Traditional Laver Drying Huts https://museum.wales/articles/2012-07-23/Food-from-our-shores/, Group Foraging for Laver https://www.foragesf.com/blog/tag/nori

In the last couple years, innovations have allowed designers to use seaweed to create a raft of products, from food to furniture. However, this recent swell in popularity may not be that new after all.

For most people in the world, seaweed’s place has remained far from the kitchen table. Japan of course wrap their sushi rice in seaweed and crispy fried seaweed is a staple side-dish on Chinese restaurant menus. Even so, in both instances the seaweed is always relegated to supporting act. With sushi, seaweed is nothing more than a practical way to hold rice, a utensil; and in the case of Chinese restaurants, it is often swapped out entirely for the considerably cheaper but slightly less glamorous: crispy fried cabbage.

Until recently, the extent of seaweed’s culinary exploits seemed to stop here. Yet in the last few years, likely driven by consumer demands for alternative, less environmentally harmful products, the market has seen a wave of new seaweed products.

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Enter Sea Man Seaweed Chips: potato and seaweed based snacks from Denmark. Collected by hand and coming in interesting flavour combinations such as Squid & Pepper and Lobster & Paprika. Akin to many seaweed based products, they offer an alternative to the mass produced, lifeless consumables that saturate the market.

Giant squid tentacles and seaweed tendrils wrap and knot themselves across the packs.

With new products comes new packaging and Pearlfisher’s packaging design for Sea Man Seaweed chips is a good example of how original and compelling a seaweed product can be. Giant squid tentacles and seaweed tendrils wrap and knot themselves across the packs. Clasping hungrily at the seaweed chips that float proud and centre. No more is seaweed maligned as the smelly mess dredged up on the beach by underwater currents. Here it is the celebrated star of the show.

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Seaspoon Seasonings by The Collaborators, https://seaspoon.com

Another new seaweed food product making a splash in the market is Seaspoon’s seaweed based seasonings, which they state “will boost your intake of essential vitamins and minerals”. With identity and packaging design by The Collaborators, this is another great example of the romantic, evocative nature of seaweed and its potential for interesting packaging design.

Drifting away from food for a moment: on the other side of the seaweed spectrum, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts graduates Jonas Edvard and Nikolaj Steenfatt have innovatively used fucus seaweed from the Danish coastline to produce their Terroir Project collection. When ground up and mixed with paper and glue, the seaweed is turned into a cork-like material which can be moulded into different forms, such as chairs or pendant lamps.

The indomitable seaweed has also, with the help of Skipping Rocks Lab, proved that it is also capable of helping save the world. Ooho capsules are biodegradable pods that can be filled with water or other liquids. At the recent London Marathon, over 30,000 seaweed capsules were handed out to runners in an effort to reduce plastic waste.

All of these innovations are a wonderful dive in the right direction to reducing our impact on the planet and are incredibly exciting. Nonetheless, for some, seaweed’s brilliant properties have long been recognised.

Laver is a species of seaweed used by only two peoples: the Japanese and the Welsh.

Laver is a species of seaweed used by only two peoples: the Japanese and the Welsh. The most nutritious variety of seaweed, it grows naturally along the rocky coastline and is laboriously picked and dried by hand. In Wales, the laver was traditionally hung in thatched drying huts that at one point, peppered the Welsh coastline. Usually, each hut belonged to a local family. Laver, named laverbread once prepared (bara lawr in Welsh), is commonly referred to as the Welshman’s caviar and like all seaweed, is undergoing a renaissance due to its surge in popularity.

Its consumption is first chronicled by Gerald of Wales in the 12th Century. Laverbread is also documented in the 1607 Brittania by William Camden:

“Near St Davids, especially at Eglwys Abernon, and in many other places along the Pembrokeshire Coast, the peasantry gather in the Spring time a kind of Alga or seaweed, where they made a sort of food called lhavan or llawvan, in English, black butter. The seaweed is washed clean from the sand, and sweated between two tile stones. The weed is then shred small and well-kneaded, as they do dough for bread, and made up into great balls or rolls, which some eat raw, and others fry with oatmeal and butter”

Once gathered, the laver is carefully washed and then blitzed in boiling water for 10 hours. The resulting green-black paste (it tastes better than it looks) is usually then either spread on toast, or mixed with oatmeal and fried, to create lavercakes. Laver is also often used by Welsh chefs as an ingredient in recipes such as lamb with laver pesto, laver ravioli, black risotto, laverbread salami, laverbread Dahl and sauces for canapés, to name a few.

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Pembrokeshire Beachfood Company’s Welsh Breakfast, https://beachfood.co.uk

For many people, especially in the South, laverbread was a staple of Welsh cuisine until it fell out of popularity in the 1970s. It does however remain a cornerstone of the Welsh breakfast. A breakfast which along with bacon, eggs and lavercakes, also often sees the addition of cockles and smoked sea trout, making it in my biased opinion, far superior to the full-English (excellent though it is).

Low in calories, a source of vitamin B12 and full of iron and iodine, laver is an absolute unquestionable super food.

Low in calories, a source of vitamin B12 and full of iron, protein, magnesium and iodine, laver is an absolute unquestionable super food. Whats more, it has also been scientifically proven to help in the treatment of nuclear pollution incidents as it contains a compound which binds with heavy metals in the gastrointestinal tract. The laver forms a gel-like salt which is understood to remove radioactive and environmental contaminants. What more could you want from a humble macroalgae?

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Many people I have spoken to are unaware of the versatility and potential of seaweed and are surprised by the new products hitting the market. They are surprised further still when I mention how Welsh people have a long history of eating seaweed. An evocative name like laverbread only adds to its intrigue.

Laver is part of a long list of surprising food treasures found all over Wales. Over the coming years, I expect more and more people will be made aware of and have the chance to enjoy this Welsh caviar.

“It will be interesting to see how this food heritage will take shape in the market and what graphic design aesthetic will accompany it.”

Previously overlooked, the tide is turning and Wales’ brilliant food produce is slowly being internationally recognised. It will be interesting to see how this food heritage will take shape in the market and what graphic design aesthetic will accompany it. Perhaps soon, this small Celtic country with have a design movement and industry to rival that of the Dutch. A design identity built on the back of uniquely Welsh produce like laver seaweed.

Here’s to the Seaweed Renaissance!

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Using graphic design to promote previously overlooked Welsh produce through the construction of a tangible Welsh identity is something I am passionate about and take pride in doing. To see my conceptual project on award winning Welsh charcuterie producer Cwm Farm, check out my introductory blog post: Cymry yn yr Iseldiroedd

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written by Iolo Cowell, Creative Intern at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme, PR at VBAT

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