Horizontal rain, Wellington boots two sizes too small, rocks promising nothing but a broken back, and an encroaching tide. This is hardcore.
At any minute I could slip and end up in an eternal sleep. Not that I wouldn't welcome the change from balance-step-balance-step-slip-balance-step-slip-balance-step.
By the time I catch up with Caroline Warwick-Evans, founder of the Cornish Seaweed Company and professional seaweed harvester—who, unlike my foal-on-ice tomfoolery, is seemingly floating over the boulder beach on the outskirts of Coverack, Cornwall— my thighs are burning and the soles of my feet feel like someone's been at them with a cane.
Crouching down in front of a rock pool, she's snipping seaweed with scissors and filling up a small plastic bag. "I'm not being funny," I say, "But surely you don't collect the seaweed in batches as small as that?"
"No," she laughs. "We're usually carrying 80-kilogram bags." My mouth gapes to the extent that I could swallow the Atlantic.
At 32 years old, Warwick-Evans hasn't always been a seaweed harvester. After a two-year stint abroad with Engineers Without Borders, she returned to Cornwall in 2012. (Putting up wind farms in Peru and worrying about acid rain in Manila, she'd learned, wasn't all it was cracked up to be.) Desperately trying to make ends meet, she was scrubbing boats and sleeping in the back of her van when she heard a radio program about the seaweed farming industry in Ireland. Three weeks of work experience followed, and she returned to Cornwall once again, setting her sights on England's first official seaweed-harvesting business.
It was a lot harder than it sounds. Whereas Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have an entrenched seaweed-eating heritage—due to everybody cooking their own in times of poverty—England doesn't have that kind of relationship with the slippery stuff. Catch someone munching on seaweed down the beach and you'd give them a wide berth.
Or, at least, until recently you would've. Thanks to Warwick-Evans and her partner Tim van Berkel, seaweed is making a bit of a splash.
"There are about 1,500 species, in general," she tells me. "About ten have common names and are relatively well known. We harvest six: dulse, sea greens, sea spaghetti, kombu, carrageen, and nori."
She hands me a slither of dulse, and it does taste pretty good; a bit slimy, but the flavour really packs the proverbial punch. As we move further along the beach—tasting sea greens and kombu as we go—I'm amazed at the different textures and flavours of each of the seaweeds. It's like stumbling upon a whole new group of vegetables.
And this is exactly how Warwick-Evans sells it to me: a whole new food group, each variety with its own cooking properties and flavours. For example, carrageen is a natural thickener, like agar agar flakes; whereas kombu, with its umami flavours, is the base for miso soup and increases the digestibility of whole grains like brown rice. Nori, I'm assured by the beaming Warwick-Evans, is a great crunchy snack in addition to being famous for sushi.
The fact I'm eating it straight from the pack back in London as I write this tells its own story. And I'm not the only one hooked on the stuff. Raymond Blanc and Jamie Oliver serve English seaweed in their restaurants, and next year Tesco is trialling fresh seaweed. The flavour is a big selling point but so are the health benefits—seaweed is a superfood, every species is anti-bacterial and, between them, they hold all 56 trace elements your body needs to survive (iron, magnesium, calcium, zinc, iodine etc).
Regardless of seaweed's growing popularity among chefs and whole food shops in England, the man on the street is still relatively in the dark. But, as with me, Warwick-Evans' enthusiasm for seaweed soon rubs off—she's used to talking people round.
When she and van Berkel started the company two years ago, they had to start completely from scratch. At the top of the priority list was acquiring the rights to harvest seaweed in the first place.
"There's nothing easy about finding out who owns the land," Warwick-Evans says, pointing down the rocky beach. "The middle section of the tide, where it is now, from here to there could be owned by the National Trust, The Duchy, private land owners, the council, The Crown Estate… millions of people. And then, below low tide, it could be other people again."
They simply starting calling everybody and asking them what bits of shore they owned. Once they'd reached the Crown Estate and enlisted the help of Natural England (the government wing that looks after land management and wildlife) they were ready to go.
In order to become the first fully licensed company in England to sell seaweed as a foodstuff, all they had to do then was write the protocols for sustainable harvesting and work out how they hell they were going to pluck seaweed from the shore and serve it up on people's plates.
The short answer: by hand. And with a whole lot of planning.
"Seaweed is really dependent on the area it's harvested from," Warwick-Evans says. "Sewage outlets, farm runoff, nearby quarries—every time you find a new stretch of land to harvest seaweed from, you have to learn again about the lay of the land and test for quality." In other words, it's not one-size-fits-all.
Then there's the harvesting itself. "We chose the location depending on the species we're going to be looking for; what the weather's doing; what season it is; how high the tide is, because if it's too high we might not be able to harvest different types," she says. "We only harvest what there's lots of. In the middle of the summer, for example, we wouldn't harvest dulse because it's still growing, and we don't harvest sea spaghetti in spring, either."
As she talks me through the strict protocols, she shows me how it's done— cutting the seaweed halfway down its tendrils in a slow-paced but methodical process.
"We developed this with Natural England, based on how they harvest in Scotland and Ireland from the wild—not how they've done it in Japan and Peru, where seaweed isn't growing back in certain areas because they cut from the root," she says. "On our protocol we include the quantities you can take from certain areas, where you cut it, and the different seasons that the different species grow in."
Once harvested, the seaweed is then dried and readied for packaging. "Seaweed holds so much water. If you carry 80 kilograms of seaweed you'll only get ten kilograms of seaweed in the end once you've dried it," she says.
"We started by building our own drying location in a shed. Didn't work. We tried drying inside with electrical heaters and dehumidifiers. Didn't work. Now we've got a system that works." I ask her what it is. "It's a trade secret," she laughs.
It's about the only thing the Cornish Seaweed Company are secretive about. The sustainability protocol, where to pick seaweed in Cornwall, how to test it —they've literally written the book. Warwick-Evans and van Berkel have purposefully paved the way for others to follow.
But because seaweed harvesting is so new to England, there are no regulations or restrictions on what can or can't be picked. Natural England only offer guidance, not enforcement and Warwick-Evans knows of at least one company—a beauty brand that uses seaweed in their products—which harvests without a license.
"It should be regulated, but seaweed is so new. There was talk last year of it becoming Marine Stewardship Council-certified, so they could put a standard stamp on that and people could look for that seal of approval as education around seaweed rises," she says.
When I ask her if she's annoyed that other companies are harvesting seaweed without a sustainable license, she simply shrugs and says, "I wouldn't want them shut down. We'll be selling against them in the end, hopefully, and that will be good for everyone. Competition raises the profile of the product and it keeps you on your toes. The consumer is much more satisfied if they can have a choice of three different brands of the same product—you trust it a bit more."
For Caroline Warwick-Evans, it's all about the seaweed.