The marine garden transformed the abandoned salt marsh into a flourishing habitat with diverse species thriving within it.
Spain’s renowned Chef del Mar or chef of the sea, Ángel León, is an expert at pushing the boundaries of seafood. The chef’s restaurant Aponiente won its third Michelin star in 2017 and León’s latest project is introducing the world to a new sustainable superfood.
León is known to be an innovative chef, viewing the ingredients he has from new angles and perspectives to create something exciting and unexpected, so it’s no surprise that he’s noticed something that many others failed to see or utilize in eelgrass, or Zostera marina.
These slender blades grow in meadows in the Bay of Cádiz, located conveniently close to his restaurant. León noticed tiny green grains resembling rice at the base of these blades. Following his instincts, he decided to find out whether these marine grains are edible, and as it turns out, the tiny clusters are packed with potential.
According to Aponiente’s research, the grains are gluten-free, high in omega-6 and -9 fatty acids, and contain 50 percent more protein than rice per grain. To top it off, eelgrass grows without freshwater or fertilizer.
León is familiar with serving dishes that utilize unappreciated and under-valued marine ingredients. He states, “When I started Aponiente 12 years ago, my goal was to open a restaurant that served everything that had no value in the sea,” adding, “the first years were awful because nobody understood why I was serving customers produce that nobody wanted.”
With perseverance and determination, he continued his quest to push “cuisine of the unknown seas,” serving sea-grown versions of tomatoes and pears as well as chorizos that are formed out of discarded fish parts. Eventually, his efforts were recognized in 2010 with his first Michelin star.
Now León and his team want to prove to the world once again the value of the humble “marine grain.” He conducted an in-depth study of the Zostera marina and found that it was an important part of the diet of the Seri, an Indigenous people living on the Gulf of California in Sonora, Mexico. Otherwise, there is no evidence that any other marine grains were used as a human food source before. He also worked with a team at the University of Cádiz to see if the perennial plant could be cultivated. Together they launched a project to adapt three small areas across a third of a hectare of salt marshes in a “marine garden” for the grains.
Finally, 18 months later, once the plants had produced grains, León decided to taste the grains. It would all have been for nothing if the grains tasted horrible, but luckily, after putting the grain through various tests, he found that the grains tasted like brown rice without the husk, and with the husk, a hint of the sea lingers on one’s tastebuds.
Cultivating Zostera marina for consumption benefits more than just our health. León and his team watched how the marine garden transformed the abandoned salt marsh into a flourishing habitat with diverse species thriving within it.
Plus, these meadows could have a huge impact on the planet. According to the WWF, seagrass is capable of capturing carbon 35 times faster than tropical rainforests and could be an “incredible tool” in fighting the climate crises as seagrass absorbs 10 percent of the ocean’s carbon, even when it covers just 0.2 percent of the seabed.
Moving forwards, León and his team hope to scale up the project, with plans for the marine grain to become a staple at his restaurant. They hope that their project reaches a global audience, paving the way for people to harness the plant’s potential to support biodiversity in aquatic ecosystems, fight climate change, and reduce food insecurity.
If you are interested in learning more about the vast benefits of cultivating seagrass and other marine vegetation like kelp, click here.