It was cool and foggy when I arrived at Schoolhouse Beach – a typical morning in the Pacific Coast region of California.
It is this low temperature that attracts most visitors hoping to escape the summer heat further inland. But today the extremely low tide drew the group down to the beach. About 15 students were here to learn how to identify and harvest seaweed.
Foraging has grown into a movement over the past few years, including from your local ocean, which is currently peak seaweed season.
The leader of our 3-hour class is Heidi Herrmann, who runs a company called Strong Arm Farm and conducts public tours like this through Forage SF.
“There are actually 640 different species [of seaweed] here on the California coast,” she told us before we dived in. They’re all edible, and the big fun lesson of today is let’s taste them as we go along. “
Heidi cut a few lines with scissors and popped a crunchy, hollow circle of beef kelp into her mouth, as the class giggled.
But not everything here is for eating. My wife, Elissa Rumsey, joined me, and her main goal was to find something called a “Turkish scarf”. I am told that its rough leaves make a great exfoliator.
First, we find a lot of Turkish “towels” – a version too small to bother with. But after a few minutes of gliding through shallow tidal pools and past giant, slippery rocks, I saw it: a single leaf of a Turkish scarf. chondracanthus exasperatus. It’s as long as my forearm.
Our forager and friend Eugene Kim drove up from San Francisco to forage with us. He was very happy for me.
“Oh! That’s the mother-in-law right there! That’s good! It’s great,” Eugene exclaims.
He told us that most of what he knows about seaweed, he learned while taking Heidi’s class last year.
We’re here at low tide so we can get to more of the “good stuff” – bladder wraps, nori and kombu; the seaweed just a few hours earlier was underwater and inaccessible.
You will no doubt see seaweed drifting on the sand, they are decomposed and bleached by the sun. That is Not what we are looking for. We need to reach it while it is still alive and anchored to the rock – healthy, vibrant and full of nutrients.
Eugene led us into that tidal zone.
“So we’re going to take this Ziploc bag and we’re going to get a pair of scissors. And we’re going to start going out into the tide,” he told us.
Our first discovery was the bladder sheath, which had numerous clusters of dark green leaves.
“You’ll find this in health food stores,” says Eugene. “It’s a really good source of iron and iodine. You can put them in salads, right? Give it a little flavor, a little bit.”
Elissa is a fan.
“I like it. It’s salty, just a little sea salt,” she said after sipping a small bunch.
And it’s important to do this sustainably, so we only harvest a small portion of each individual plant. Eugene’s rule of thumb is no more than 25%. During this part of the life cycle, seaweed can still regenerate much of what we cut off.
A little further down the beach, we find a large portion of nori, the ingredient for wrapping sushi.
“They take this, dry it, and then crush it,” Eugene explains. “And then they turn them into flat sheets and then they bake it. This is exactly what you’ll find at any of your sushi places or any Korean restaurant.”
We didn’t notice every single patch of algae on the rocks, but that didn’t stop Eugene. Remember, all 640 species can be found here to be can eat. I pointed to a long, fibrous, dark red mass of seaweed hanging over a rock.
“I don’t know what that is. Let’s have a taste,” Eugene exclaims.
After snapping and sampling, he concluded that just because you can eat it, doesn’t mean you should.
“This has a bitter taste. It doesn’t look appetizing and I would say it doesn’t taste good either,” Eugene said.
Well, they can’t all be winners. But trying new things and sharing what you learn has led to some pretty amazing innovations around the world.
Eugene gives a few examples, such that tomatoes are integral to what we think of as Italian food, but they didn’t have tomatoes before 1492.
He kept talking about Korean food.
“Everybody thinks kimchi is spicy and it has chili peppers and stuff,” he said. “But chili peppers come from the Americas. And so before the 1400s, Korean kimchi didn’t have chili peppers. So I think it was unbelievable 500 years ago all over the world. And all those what we think about it, like traditional Asian culture, they really come from right here.”
We packed our bags of seaweed and went home, feeling a little closer to nature and the rest of the world.
Chad Campbell is a producer with NPR’s Morning version.