It’s overlooked, underfoot, and everywhere. At water’s edge in Stillwater Cove, the retreating surf has deposited a rainbow arc of seaweed, in shades of red, green and brown. The abalone divers and kayakers mostly ignore it. But the gatherers are delighted. Seaweed is what they came for, and here it is, in abundance.
Sonoma County Regional Parks’ seasonal ranger Marcia Munson led 12 curious visitors into the rockbound cove last month to learn the art of foraging seaweed that can be transformed into a maritime meal. Upon reaching their destination, tucked between Salt Point State Park and Fort Ross State Historic Park, the group collected sea lettuce, nori, feather boa and sea palm, some if it destined for the soup pot at the trailhead and some for their kitchens at home.
Seaweed and sea vegetables are an aspiring forager’s gateway crop. Unlike mushrooms or berries, no variety of seaweed is toxic, according to Munson. You’ll want to wash it before consuming it, because if you gather seaweed from the beach, it’s likely to have been seasoned by the feet of other beachcombers and, perhaps, their dogs. Some sea vegetable varieties are better cooked than raw. But other varieties, fresh and untrammeled, can be consumed straight from the source.
Anyone who has eaten sushi is familiar with nori, the savory seaweed wrapper for hand rolls and other delights. Seaweed salad is a standard offering in Japanese restaurants. Seaweed snacks, crunchy like potato chips and sometimes spiced with wasabi, can be found on supermarket shelves, a healthy alternative to …well, potato chips.
It seems exotic, but seaweed has long been a staple for people living in oceanside communities from California’s North Coast to the Philippines. According to local seaweed purveyor Strong Arm Farm, sea vegetables contain up to 20 times the minerals of vegetables grown on land, including protein, iron, calcium and iodine. They can be incorporated into soups, salads and noodle dishes, as well as added to bath products and used to bolster garden soils. A product derived from red seaweed, carrageenan, is used as a thickener in foods such as ice cream, cottage cheese and yogurt, prompting one forager to wonder, “Is ice cream now a vegetable?”
Munson, who has been leading hikes in the regional parks for 10 years and walks focused on sea vegetables for three, first became fascinated with seaweed when she was studying biology in college. She and fellow classmates were tasked with choosing something to focus on for an intertidal unit. While the others zeroed in on the show-stoppers — sea urchins, starfish, anemones and the like — Munson found herself drawn to the stuff they were kicking aside. The seaweed.
On this overcast summer day, as she led foragers down the half-mile Stillwater Cove trail, which drops through a misty redwood forest before reaching the shoreline, Munson shared seaweed facts. The sea vegetable is at the bottom of the food chain; it’s a “producer,” sustaining all the creatures that follow on, from crabs, urchins and abalone, on up through otters and sea lions, to the top of the chain, where humans and sharks preside.
There are three different kinds of seaweed, identified as green, red and brown. The red and brown varieties can sometimes be confused if a gatherer relies solely on color, but if you give the seaweed a tug, the red will stretch and the brown will snap.