Down-easters harvest a living from seaweed

Ask for Lamaria longicruris, Alaria esculenta, Palmaria palmata, or Porphyra umbilicolus at a supermarket, or even at a natural-food store, and you'd get, at the least, a quizzical look. But if you ask for seaweed, or sea vegetables, or more specifically, kelp, alaria, dulse, or nori, you might be handed a large plastic bag of hand-harvested seaweed from the rocky coast of Maine, which are called sea vegetables. They cost about $2.50 for a 1-ounce package.

What's in the bag? A food that will spark soups, salads, beans, and rice with a briny, spicy, nutty, and not too salty flavor of the sea.

Harvesting seaweed for human consumption is far from new. Four varieties of edible marine plants have been discovered in 10,000-year-old Japanese burial mounds. In Australia, the aborigines still prepare three dishes made from sea vegetables.

American Indians on both coasts included alaria, porphyra, and kelp in their traditional dishes. Dulse has been a favorite in the Maritime Provinces of Canada ever since the Irish and the Scots settled there. And across the Atlantic, coastal people of Scandinavia, Normandy, Brittany, and the British Isles have been eating seaweed for hundreds of years, as have their foraging sheep and cattle.

The business of harvesting seaweed off the rocky coast of Maine is a little over 10 years old. But the market served by the Maine Coast Sea Vegetable Company, headquartered in Franklin, Maine, has grown almost as prodigiously as the seaweed that clings to the rocky shoreline, a few miles distant.

The company expects to harvest and distribute more than 13 tons of seaweed this year. It will sell its briny product throughout the United States and Canada.

Interestingly, the Maine business started quite by accident, in response to a personal taste and need. In 1971 Shepherd and Linette Erhart, both on rigid diets that included goodly amounts of the Japanese seaweed wakame, found a similar seaweed as they strolled the rocky beach of Schoodic Point in Maine's Hancock County.

They brought it home and cooked it as they did their Japanese seaweed. The couple decided it was awfully good, perhaps even better and fresher than the imported sea vegetable they had been buying in local health-food stores.

Later analysis showed that what they'd found goes by the name alaria. It's a close cousin to the Japanese wakame. At that point, they did not jump with joy and shout, ``Wow, we've just founded a new industry in Maine.''

That thought hadn't occurred to them yet. They merely continued harvesting the seaweed for their own use. In the course of this, they found other types of seaweed and experimented with them. Friends from Boston, who had been following the same kind of rigid diet, would visit and eat the Maine seaweed, take some home with them. Soon, they would call the Erharts up in Maine and ask for more.

Before long, they had a long list of people in other states who had asked for a regular supply of Maine seaweed. Almost 24 months after that first Maine seaweed was fished out of the icy water of Frenchman's Bay, the Erharts looked at each other and said, rather cautiously, ``Maybe we could start a seaweed business here in Maine.''

Today, that business provides a partial, seasonal livelihood for 20 coast residents who harvest, dry, and package the sea vegetables. In 1980, Mrs. Erhart dropped out of the business. Her husband took on a partner, Carl Karush, who handles customers and computers. His wife, Wendy, handles the drying, weighing, and packaging. Mr. Erhart comes from a strong business background - his grandfather was co-founder of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. He'd be the chairman of the Maine Coast Sea Vegetable board, if the company had one.

The story of the Erharts' modest commercial success with seaweed shouldn't inspire folks to run out to the closest beach and forage for sea vegetables. There are 8,000 species of seaweed, each with its own specific properties. Of these, only a little over a dozen are suitable for human consumption. And of these few, the Maine Coast Sea Vegetable Company harvests and packages only four types, two in the brown seaweed group, kelp and alaria, and two in the red group, nori and dulse. Each of the four has its own distinctive taste and use.

Alaria, the hardest to harvest, has a wilder, brinier taste than the three others. It makes a wonderful rich soup and goes well with a pot of rice and other grains, or in a stew. It should be cooked for at least 20 minutes, or it can be eaten raw in salads. But it must be first marinated in vinegar or lemon juice.

Kelp has a sweeter taste, which blends well with its naturally salty sea taste. Kelp cooks more rapidly than alaria, and since it's quite thin, it can be pan-fried into the most tantalizing chips.

Dulse is probably the most popular sea vegetable harvested by the company. Some of the finest dulse comes from a New Brunswick island just off the northeastern Maine coast. Dulse has a stronger taste and a soft chewy texture which makes it a popular snack. It's frequently eaten right out of the bag. In Canada some call it ``Nova Scotia popcorn.''

But don't stop there. Dulse tastes wonderful in soup and chowder, sandwiches, and salads, or as chips. It provides a zippy taste and good nutrition.

Folks who have eaten in sushi bars are familiar with nori, since it's processed into sheet form and used to wrap sticky rice, vegetables, and seafood. The Scots soak dulse, then mix it with rolled oats and fry it into a traditional bread, called Laver Bread. Nori, too, has its own rich flavor, a sweet nutty taste.

The Erharts and Karushes are not only harvesters and packagers of sea vegetables, but marketers as well. They're also looking for ways to introduce seaweed into the mainstream American diet. They'd love to get MacDonald's to chop it over hamburgers.

A second product, other than the seaweed itself, has come out in the past year, called Sea Seasonings.

This is a line of seasonings made from the four varieties of seaweed, dried and ground into powder that can be sprinkled over food, providing a flavorful alternative to regular table salt.

Another group of seasonings combines the powdered sea vegetables with popular spices, such as ginger, garlic, and cayenne.

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