Crisis-hit Spaniards seek seaweed riches

Three young Spaniards in wetsuits plunge into the sea to harvest a culinary delicacy that promises them a way out of troubled financial waters: seaweed.

Crisis-hit Spaniards seek seaweed riches
Photo: Miguel Riopa/AFP

Armed with stainless steel scythes, they swim in low tide from rock to rock cutting down codium seaweed and kombu kelp, which they gather up in bags.

The trio — 35-year-old marine scientist Alberto Sanchez, his sister Maria and his friend, 33-year-old biologist Sergio Baamonde — carry the sea greens by foot to their car, parked at the top of nearby cliffs.

Then they transport the algae to a processing factory set up by the two friends in the Galician sea port of Ortigueira, northern Spain.

"It is tough but we are very motivated," said Baamonde, who joined up with Sanchez in April 2012 to launch into the seaweed business, with other prospects scarce in a country hit by an economic crisis that has left one in four people out of work.

They have established a company, Ardora Sea Preserves, to sell edible seaweed, an industry that took root in the Galicia region in the 1980s.

In 2012, sales of ecological seaweed and related foods in Galicia amounted to €3.8 million ($5 million), according to the region's maritime and environmental minister, Rosa Quintana.

Baamonde worked at a laboratory in La Coruna University until "they cut the grant". From 2007 to 2009 he worked as a consultant on on seaweed farming to Galician fisheries associations as part off a regional government programme.

"Then the economic crisis hit and there was no money for the programme," said Baamonde, who found other jobs for a short period before entering into the seaweed business with his friend.

"There is a gap in the market right now in Galicia for this type of gourmet seaweed product and we are trying to fill it," said Sanchez, who worked at a biomedical research centre in Barcelona before launching the venture.

"It took us a year to find the financing," said Sanchez, sitting in a small office at their factory, which has been running since the start of the year at an industrial park in Ortigueira.

The young entrepreneurs invested 300,000 euros, which they raised from relatives, loans and a small state subsidy which allowed them to buy the land for the factory, which prepares the seaweed for sale.

"We want a product that differentiates us in terms of quality, the choice of raw material and the way we prepare it," Sanchez said, stressing the ecological nature of their seaweed product when compared to that of their larger competitors.

Instead of using machinery, much of the seaweed preparation such as washing is done by hand.

Baamonde, Sanchez and his sister Maria do everything from harvesting to preparation to sales of the seaweed — canned, fresh or dried — as well as finding new customers.

Among their customers are chefs including Javier Olleros, who has a Michelin star, and Daniel Lopez, chef at the "O Camino do Ingles" restaurant in the city of Ferrol.

"You can achieve flavours that people don't expect," Lopez said as he prepared a dish of hake wrapped in sea lettuce and marinated tuna garnished with codium seaweed while chatting with Baamonde about ways of preparing the algae.

Baamonde and Sanchez are keen to pursue the scientific side of their business, too, by seeking new environmentally friendly ways to process and grow seaweed.

"Our plan is to invest a lot in research and development and we have a lot of ideas," said Baamonde.

"Seaweed is a seasonal product so for part of the year we won't have any work," added Sanchez, adding that they are considering filling the gap by cultivating mushrooms in autumn.

"In the long term we want to work with other maritime produce such as sea urchins but for the moment that is just a plan," he said.

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Six Barcelona bars serving delicious free tapas

The Local's Esme Fox, a long-term Barcelona resident, shares some of her favourite city bars that serve free tapas when you buy a drink.

Six Barcelona bars serving delicious free tapas

Spain is of course celebrated for its tapas, small plates of food, designed for sharing and consisting of favourites such as patatas bravas (fried potatoes topped with spicy sauce), pimientos de padrón (fried green peppers) and croquetas (croquettes of different varieties such as ham or mushrooms). 

One theory is that tapas were invented in order to cover your wine or beer glass, so that flies and other bugs wouldn’t fly in. The barman would give customers a piece of bread topped with jamón (ham) or queso (cheese) in order to act as a lid or in Spanish ‘tapa’, hence the name tapas.

Although most cities in Spain no longer serve free tapas when you buy a drink, there are still some cities where you are guaranteed a free snack. This is still true in the southern cities of Granada, Almería and Jaén, in León and Segovia, as well as a few others dotted around the country.

Despite this, you can still find the odd bar serving the old-fashioned free tapa in some of Spain’s largest and most expensive cities, including Madrid and Barcelona.

So, next time you’re in the Catalan capital, save some money by visiting one of these bars, where you’ll still get served a free tapa along with your drink.  

READ ALSO: Top ten Madrid bars serving free tapas, one for each barrio

Keep in mind, you won’t be served a free drink if you just order a coffee and sometimes not with a soft drink either, it’s usually when you buy a glass of beer or wine.

Ca’l Chusco

This small traditional bar in the old fisherman’s neighbourhood of Barceloneta offers one free tapa every time you order a drink. It’s usually something small and simple, but if you’re still hungry then you can always order one of their delicious paellas or plates or seafood too. 

This cute and contemporary little tapas joint, situated on the edge of Gracia, is so popular that it often gets very crowded, so get here early if you want a spot at the bar. It costs around €2-4 for a drink and a small tapas dish, which you can choose from a large selection. There’s everything from croquetas and hummus to small sausages.

Pappa e Citti

It’s not just authentic Spanish bars offering free tapas in Barcleona, at traditional Sardinian restaurant Pappa e Citti in the barrio of Gracia, they offer it too. Be aware that free tapas with your drink is only served between 6-9pm. Small tapas offerings may have an Italian twist or maybe something simple like a piece of bread topped with cream cheese and caramelised onions.

La Xula Taperia

In the heart of the Gracia neighbourhood, this modern and stylish bar offers the closest thing to a Granadino-style free plate of tapas. Rather than just a small piece of bread topped with an ingredient, their free offerings include meatballs, anchovies or even ensaladilla rusa (Russian potato salad).

Casa Arana

Located in the heart of the Sant Andreu neighbourhood, not far from the metro stop of the same name, Casa Arana is a small local barrio bar. As well as the regular drinks on offer, they make their own beer in either tostada (toasted) or rubia (pale) varieties, which is served in a tall glass and looks like an ice cream sundae. The free tapa served with your drink is typically a piece of baguette topped with a simple ingredient such as jamón, chistorra (cured sausage) or cheese.

Cassette Bar

This tapas and cocktail bar located in the heart of Raval has a decidedly 80s themed vibe and name to match. They have been serving free tapas for the past 14 years – something typical like piece of bread and tomato topped with a slice of tortilla (Spanish omelette).