Who would ever think you’d be reading about a Spanish Michelin Star chef, hunter-gatherer Seri people from Mexico, and a possible defense against erosion and climate change, all related to a project to harvest something which we’ll call sea rice?
I’ll attempt to pull this together for you. It’s quite fascinating, actually and worth it. For me, this started with a recent article in The Guardian called “The rice of the sea: how a tiny grain could change the way humanity eats”. This article caught my attention when I read this description of a ‘new food’: gluten-free, high in omega-6 and -9 fatty acids, and contains 50% more protein than rice per grain, according to Aponiente’s research. And all of it growing without freshwater or fertiliser. Wow. Is this possible? And is this really new? Stay tuned.
I’ll start with the celebrity chef, named Ángel León. León is profiled in a Time Magazine article:
In 2008, as a young, unknown chef, he took a loin from one fish and attached it to the loin of another, using collagen to bind the two proteins together. He called them hybrids and served them to unsuspecting diners at Aponiente, his restaurant in the southern Spanish port town of El Puerto de Santa María, just across the bay from Cádiz. He discovered that fish eyes, cooked at 55°C in a thermal circulator until the gelatin collapsed, made excellent thickening agents for umami-rich sauces. Next he found that micro-algae could sequester the impurities of cloudy kitchen stocks the same way an egg white does in classical French cooking. In the years since, León has used sea bass to make mortadella; mussels to make blood sausage; moray eel skin to mimic crispy pigskins; boiled hake to fashion fettuccine noodles; and various parts of a tuna’s head to create a towering, gelatinous, fall-apart osso buco.
Meet Leon in a video profile here:
His restaurant, Michelin-starred Aponiente, is “set in an 18th-century tidal mill inhabited by myriad species in southwest Spain” it’s is a seafood lover’s paradise, serving the freshest, most sustainable ocean produce, including goose barnacle, fiddler crab and albacore, as well as plankton. Read the Michelin review here: https://guide.michelin.com/en/andalucia/el-puerto-de-santa-maria/restaurant/aponiente
Aponiente has its own research lab, which recently has made progress with eelgrass seeds – the little grain that was featured in the Guardian article above. The eelgrass is Zostera Marina. From the lab’s research:
At Aponiente’s research lab, we have achieved the cultivation of Zostera marina and its seed – marine grain. For the first time ever, controlled crops have been successfully grown. Never before has this goal been reached. The project was launched in 2017 – the first of its kind in all the world. The undertaking allowed for the recovery of the native species, Zostera marina, helping to generate greater marine biodiversity, thus enriching our ecosystem and strengthening the region in the struggle against climate change.
Currently, the experimental cultivation area measures some 3000 m2, and is located in Bahía de Cádiz Natural Park, near the municipality of Puerto Real. Along the northern coast of Spain, and throughout Europe, there are naturally occurring marine meadows teeming with Zostera marina. The wild species is now protected, given that it plays a crucial role in the ecosystem, but it is still dying at an alarming rate in areas where it once grew in abundance. Human marine activities have had an adverse effect on the plant.
Despite their importance it is extremely challenging to carry out reforestation projects of this kind. The problem is that there are no nurseries that are prepared to supply the appropriate plants and/or seeds. One aspect of the present project that makes it so notable is that, for the first time, a seed bank will be created that will serve to repopulate coastal wetlands, which can then be restored and managed.
A full PDF of this research is available here: https://www.cerealmarino.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/APONIENTE_CEREAL-MARINO_DOSSIER-DE-PRENSA_ENG.pdf
The rice is nutritionally sound:
So what about the connection to the Seri hunter-gatherers that I promised you?
Back to the article from Time:
Juan Martín, Aponiente’s resident biologist who has worked with León for years, knew the plant well. “I had been studying seagrasses for 15 years—but always from the standpoint of the ecosystem. It never occurred to me or anyone else studying it that it was edible.” That is, until León showed up one day at Aponiente with a printout of a 1973 article in Science documenting the diet of the Seri, hunters and gatherers of Sonora, Mexico, who have eaten eelgrass for generations. Like many grains, it required an elaborate process of threshing, winnowing, toasting and pulverizing before being cooked into a slurry with water. The Seri ate the bland paste with condiments to punch up the flavor: honey or, preferably, sea-turtle oil.
Here's a snippet from that article (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/181/4097/355)
So what is the project theme here? Well, aside from the research project, León and his restaurant’s research team is going to take the research to reality:
If all goes according to (project) plan, they will harvest 12 acres of eelgrass in the summer of 2021. León and team will use most of those seeds (about 22,000 kg) to expand the eelgrass significantly in 2022–2023, and he will keep about 3,000 kg to cook with at the restaurant and experiment with in the lab.
With more than 5,000 hectares of estuaries and abandoned salt beds strewn across the region, if León and team have their way, Cádiz could soon be home to one of the largest eelgrass meadows on the planet.
Could you be making and eating Zostera waffles soon? Maybe!