Spanish Chef ngel León and his research team are studying the culinary prospects of a seagrass grain that they believe can help solve the climate crisis and improve food security.
León’s research on Zostera Marina Grain, a type of sea grass, started in 2017 when it came across grain in the Bay of Cadiz in southern Spain. In recent years, the research team of Restaurant León, Aponiente, explored the potential of grain as a culinary ingredient.
Juan Martín, environmental manager of Aponiente and coordinator of the Zostera Marina project, told Food Tank: “Zostera Marina seeds have such great culinary potential due to their similarity to other grains. You could make flour, or ferment it into alcohol, the possibilities are endless.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, seagrass beds play a vital role in the ecosystem. They stabilize the seabed, provide food and nursery habitats, and maintain water quality. Although they cover less than one percent of the seabed, seagrass beds contain around 10 percent of the carbon stored in the ocean. But seagrass beds are in constant decline due to pollution and habitat destruction.
To harness the power of algae, León and his team cultivate the seed of Zostera Marina in the Bay of Cadiz, near his restaurant. The cultivation area, measuring approximately 3,000 square meters, also serves as a seed bank for future cultivation and restoration projects.
“The integration of seagrass in aquaculture is a natural next step that will generate positive impacts,” Martín told Food Tank. “Not only would Zostera serve as nursery habitat, it would also help clean up water and sequester carbon. If seagrass farms are strategically placed in coastal areas, they could help prevent erosion by anchoring sediment and reduce the impact of storm surges.
León’s team are not the first to use Zostera Marina. Seagrass beds have been used for a variety of purposes including mattress padding, livestock feed, manure, and wall insulation. And the Seri community in the Gulf of California have also harvested the seeds of Zostera Marina for consumption.
Martín tells Food Tank that the research team visited the Seri community to learn more about grain. “Each spring these blades of seagrass wash up on the shore filled with seeds and the Seri people collect them. The seed is called Xnoois in the Seri culture. Martín tells Food Tank. It chronicles Xnoois’ transformation into a tortilla-like flatbread when they visit with the community.
“Our favorite recipe has been the tortillas of the Seri people because of the message and the cultural heritage they convey,” Martín told Food Tank.
Professor Emeritus of Marine Sciences Dr Kenneth Moore is uncertain whether Zostera Marina will become a reliable source of food, however, citing complications with cultivation and harvesting procedures. “The artificial cultivation of seagrass in ponds would require exceptional water quality, temperature and light controls. We have had little success in keeping seaweed growing in greenhouses for a while, ”Moore told Food Tank. Even for the seed harvest, he points out that the process would be too difficult to replicate for large-scale commercial use.
But Martín remains optimistic that Aponiente’s Zostera Marina project may introduce new opportunities to restore seagrass beds, fight climate change and even improve food security. Currently, the team is in the process of certifying Zostera Marina as a novel food by the European Food Safety Authority. Working closely with local research institutes and universities, Martín hopes they can serve the Zostera Marina grain in their restaurant within the year.
Photo courtesy of Aponiente