Today, algae are popular with the public, professionals and scientists alike. Both mysterious and promising, they offer countless benefits and uses. In Brittany, and particularly in northern Finistère, algae are abundant and the species extremely varied: more than 700 species are listed including at least 300 in the largest field of algae in Europe located in the Molène archipelago in the Iroise Sea. The seaweed industry in Brittany is listed at the top among those in France.
We met up with a passionate Breton algae expert to find out more.
Régine, how did you come to develop a real passion for algae?
It all started with an algae trip on the foreshore about ten years ago. At the time, we did not talk as much about algae as we do today, but the industry already existed. I was just curious and intrigued. The word “algae” was even a little mysterious to me. This outing was a shock, the revelation of an unknown world. Since then, I have continued to enrich my knowledge, and, more importantly, to pass it on.
In particular, what was it that surprised or seduced you about algae exactly?
I am, like many French people, a gourmet and passionate about cuisine. The great thing about seaweed is that they are all edible, offer an infinite range of flavours and textures and also enhance the taste of other foods. Not to mention all their other “talents” that make them ingredients of choice in a wide variety of sectors and industries.
Red, brown, green types…are all seaweeds really edible?
Absolutely, at least the “macro-algae”, that is, the algae that we can see with the naked eye. I really emphasize this: you are not at any risk when eating algae; unlike fungi, they are not potentially toxic. Some precautions are necessary (algae hanging from rocks, water quality…), one must taste them in small quantities in the beginning so that the body gets used to them. However, they should obviously be avoided by allergic persons or those medically advised against the in-take of iodine.
So algae should be “vegetables” like any other?
Not at all, an alga is not a plant. It is an alga, that is, a species in itself. There are certain common points between a plant and an alga, in particular photosynthesis and the presence of the pigment that is chlorophyll. Thanks to this process, algae and plants only need a few things to nurture themselves: water, light and carbon dioxide. Incidentally, I would point out that without the action of algae in the oceans, our atmosphere would be difficult to breathe in. Although algae are the ancestors of terrestrial plants, there are notable differences. For example – and I am talking here about macroscopic algae – algae does not have a root, but a kind of crampon that lends it its clinging ability. Unlike plants, algae absorb nutrients through the entire surface that is in contact with water: the blade. Seaweed does not have a stem, but a stipe. Nor does it have leaves, flowers or seeds to reproduce.
How is seaweed prepared and enjoyed in France? Are we inspired, for example, by Japan?
Not necessarily. I run culinary workshops and collaborate with many chefs, including Catherine Le Joncour, author of Algues Gourmandes published by Flammarion. We are inventing and propose a gastronomic seaweed cuisine that fits perfectly into the French culinary tradition, even steps it up. Seaweed is in my opinion the “fifth flavor”, iodized, its various types offer a great playground for cooking enthusiasts as well as vegetarians and vegans. However, algae are foods that you have to learn how to cook. Dry algae, such as fresh algae and red algae, is not cooked the same way as green or brown algae. An introduction to preparing seaweed is essential to me.
Today, more and more people are interested in algae: how do you explain it? Is it a fad?
I'm not going to talk about fashionable foods, I'm going to talk about underlying trends. My analysis is that today’s society aspires to a form of “return to nature”, increasingly rejecting industrial products incorporating synthetic chemistry. Society is passionate about food functions. I am also thinking of the development of vegetarianism and veganism; both contribute heavily to this interest in a healthy, nutritious and 100% natural food like algae. In France it is estimated that 5% of vegetarians and the population change their eating habits (gluten-free diet, for instance). The trend is even more pronounced among younger people. The demand and interest for algae is therefore truly exponential.
So everyone can go “fishing for algae” at low tide…
Yes, under two conditions: fishing only for algae that are still attached to a support – not drifting – and then ensuring that the harvest takes place in high-quality waters, as is the case in northern Finistère.
You mentioned the other properties of algae: what are their possible uses?
They are countless, but above all they depend on the algae species chosen. Take for example laminar seaweed: this species of seaweed is in itself a tasty food as well as an alicament with a re-mineralizing, slimming and stimulating properties. Other properties of laminar seaweed can also be used to produce plastic, food additives and even dressings. In cosmetics, it acts as a moisturizer and emollient as well as soil fertilizer…
Is Brittany at the forefront of seaweed sector exploits?
Yes and no. Not at the international level. Asian countries, led by Japan, are thousands of years ahead of us. By this I mean that they have studied, consumed and exploited algae for ages. In our country, the interest in algae has come late and is limited, especially at the culinary level. Algae have been used mainly as fuel, as fertilizer and later, in the chemical industry, but this seems anecdotal compared to the real potential of algae.
On the other hand, it is true that Brittany is, in France, the most dynamic region in terms of research & development and biotechnologies in the field of algae. Algae as a resource is almost inexhaustible, it reproduces very quickly, especially in waters of the quality of those of Finistère, and when good harvesting practices are respected.
From an economic point of view, the potential is therefore formidable, already today production is struggling to keep up with demand, but I personally regret the lack of structure and strategy within the sector. Some local actors are still too often inward-looking and do not always see the value in uniting and pooling resources. There is room for everyone, all energies, all creativity.
Seaweed is the future. Brittany has a historic chance at a front row seat in the exploitation of a virtuous food, but for this to happen, all the players in the sector must work together.
About Régine Queva
Regine Quéva, a teacher by training and profession, has written nearly twenty specialized books on natural products. She fell in love with seaweed almost 10 years ago, she entertains seaweed outings, cooking workshops and passionately transmits her in-depth knowledge on the subject.
In 2016, she founded the association “Food'algues” which aims to train, inform and federate the general public and professionals around the Breton algae industry. During the same time, the Food'Algues website, the first collaborative website dedicated to Breton seaweed cooking, was born.
Further reading (in French):
Vegans: want to test seaweed cooking?
To read: a seaweed recipe for vegans! by Régine Queva
Want to discover seaweed in holiday mode?
Go on the Secrets of the algae reality tour by France écotours