This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Seaweed has been part of the human diet for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found it in the prehistoric kitchens of people in Chile and its consumption has been documented in early written accounts of populations all over the world. One of the first living things on earth, seaweed is highly nutritious, rich in proteins, vitamins, amino acids and fatty acids like omega-3, omega-6 and omega-7. Many scientists think seaweed could be the food of the future, and could potentially provide sustainable food security to millions.
Today, we tend to think of it as a staple of East Asian cuisine, particularly Japanese. But these aquatic plants are actually part of the culinary tradition of many countries across the world, including Sicily, where I spent a whole month this summer. Called u mauru – from the Sicilian word màguru, meaning meagre, poor – this reddish gelatinous seaweed grows on rocks in shallow waters of the Catania area, on the Sicilian east coast.
There, it used to be eaten as a snack by fishermen returning from their morning fishing trips. They tore it off the rocks, seasoned it with lemon and salt and ate it on their fishing boats before getting to shore. Fishermen would also put up stands on the coastline and sell it as a salad to beachgoers over the summer. I was tipped off to this delicacy by a VICE follower on Instagram, who said the dish would be hard to find. They weren’t kidding – turns out, locals have considered the dish as a sort of taboo for over 30 years. But more on that later.
U mauru, known scientifically as Chondracanthus teedei, was first recorded by German pharmacist, botanist and phycologist Friedrich Traugott Kützing in 1847. The species is actually quite widespread in the Mediterranean, especially in Portugal, in the Black Sea and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It’s also been seen in Japan and in Brazil.
Once, the algae also grew abundantly in Sicily and other parts of Italy, but nowadays, it’s less easy to find. Divers often go looking for it on volcanic rocks but most of the time they return empty-handed. As a result, the mauru culinary tradition is disappearing at the speed of light. It survives in a handful of restaurants in a 20-km stretch of coastline going from the town of Acireale to Catania.
Determined to try it, I called up a bunch of the area’s fishmongers, divers and restaurant owners. Of the 12 potential suppliers I contacted about this seaweed, nine snapped at me or hung up right away. I called up the few who didn’t literally every day, sounding more and more desperate each time. Inevitably, the answer always was, "Nun ci nnè mauru, Andrea" – “There’s no mauru, Andrea”, in the local dialect.
When I went to ask about the seaweed in person, I was stared down from head to toe. Luckily, I had a local friend with me, ready to speak in dialect and lower tensions. Finally, one of my friendlier contacts told me why people were being so rude to me – he said the seaweed is actually illegal and only sold under the table through trusted customers and acquaintances. That was quite surprising – to my knowledge, I was just trying to track down a very rare delicacy, not snooping around the underworld for trafficked goods.
Enticed by the botanical intrigue, I asked around why mauru is illegal. Giambattista Guarrera, a local fisherman, told me the seaweed “is basically toxic and eating it will make you sick,” Guarrera said. “Seaweed absorbs pollution and can be pretty dangerous.” Besides, locals said the plant only grows wild and is quite rare, so it shouldn’t be removed from its habitat.
According to a 2021 report by the Italian environmentalist NGO Legambiente, the Catania coast has been polluted by nearby industries, residential waste and boats. Indeed, some types of seaweed thrive in polluted waters, causing so-called algae blooms that can change entire ecosystems. Studies on edible seaweed have also found that these plants have a high absorption capacity for toxic metals present in high quantities in polluted areas and can be dangerous to humans.
But local hearsay aside, I didn’t come across any evidence that this particular seaweed is dangerous, nor that it is an actually protected species that shouldn’t be removed by divers. On the 27th day of my research, I finally found a restaurant in Acireale that served the dish. Unfortunately, after my visit, the restaurant owner called me up and asked me not to include any references about him or his business as he feared people in the area would judge him for serving seaweed-based dishes.
Once at the restaurant, I first ordered the traditional seaweed salad, seasoned the old way with salt, lemon and pepper. Frankly, it tasted like a rock. You know, that salty, iron flavour you get in your mouth when you jump off a rock into the sea, except only a thousand times more metallic. That, coupled with the thick, fibrous consistency of the plant made me regret all the hours I spent chasing it.
“The flavour changes a lot depending on the time [of the year],” said the anonymous restaurateur, who’s actually extremely passionate about mauru and usually goes fishing for it himself. “August is not the best time, quite the opposite actually. The mauru season goes from March till June. The more you wait, the more it tastes of iodine and takes on a red colour.”
Thankfully, the other dish I ordered, pasta with seafood and mauru, was absolutely delicious. Cooking it down really softens the plant’s flavour – although bear in mind that the taste will stay in your mouth for hours to come.
Finally, I asked the restaurant owner if this seaweed is actually illegal and, most importantly, harmful. “[In this area], the mauru grows where saltwater meets freshwater and only where the water is clean,” he said. “It also grows on volcanic rocks. These conditions are hard to find.”
Basically, he claimed the rumours about toxicity are completely false, since the seaweed is so hard to find today precisely because it can’t grow in polluted conditions. And yet, the people in the area are totally convinced the plant is bad for you and have given it and people who eat it a bad reputation.
Despite this, a tight-knit group of mauru aficionados have kept using the seaweed on the down low. “Whenever I can't personally find it, I buy it without any problems,” the restaurant owner told me, remaining reticent about the details. “I just need [to know] their general fishing license and to specify the area where it was taken from.” These rules apply to all seafood products.
The food’s rarity makes it quite expensive, around €30 a kilo. But to me, it’s all worth it.