It may be several months since you were kicking your way through the surf on British beaches, or picking seaweed out of your sandwiches on a summertime family picnic, but did you know you may well have been naively ignoring a perfect foodie ingredient?
We’ve been chatting to one female founder who has made seaweed into a perfect culinary asset, and is developing a growing niche business as a result.
Wander your local farmer’s market or stop by the local artisan café, and chances are, these days you’ll find yourself stumbling upon a brand or a product created by a food entrepreneur.
In fact, if you wanted to look at a particular sector which has seen a huge growth in start-ups within the UK in recent times, food and drink would be an obvious arena.
From protein balls to preserves, juices to jackfruit and vegan feasts to veggie snacks, the market is awash with ‘on trend’ creations which may well have started life from a kitchen table somewhere in the heart of England.
Octopus’s Garden is a brand with slightly more ‘intriguing heritage’, however.
Sure, the product line has been crafted in a family home by a foodie-loving entrepreneur, but the difference, is that this story of business creation centres on a foodstuff so rarely appreciated by the majority.
What is it?
Yes, that’s right.
That knotty mass of sea-scented matter, which you’ve spent your lifetime ignoring.
Well, news flash.
Seaweed has some of the most incredible nutritional properties, and at the same time manages to be in plentiful supply on our beautiful British shores.
One woman who’s discovered this, and who now seems to be making it her life’s work to convert others to its pleasures, is Jane Antrobus.
At the age of 40, and as a mother of two youngsters, she’s turned her back on a local authority career and is turning edible seaweed into ‘ready-to-eat’ products – pickled seaweed and liquid ‘seaweed essence’ – which capture the fantastic flavour and benefits of the seaweed in easy to use forms.
She considers it to be something of a ‘Challenger Brand’ in today’s fascinating foodie world, and says she’s so convinced by the merits of seaweed that her own children rarely leave the house without receiving a pipette of the Umami Drops (seaweed essence).
“I’ve always been an experimental foodie, and loved to cook and create dishes, but I never imagined I’d be an entrepreneur, setting up a business in this sector and retailing my own product,” she admits, from her home in Bristol.
“Up until six years ago, I honestly didn’t know much about seaweed at all, and, perhaps like most people, it wasn’t something I considered using in my kitchen.”
That changed when Jane began conversing with a friend who had been volunteering in Japan, and who had been helping to restore seaweed farming operations in the post Tsunami era.
What her pal had discovered was what a quality ingredient seaweed was, and that, coincidentally, it also happened to be in plentiful untapped supply in the United Kingdom.
“My friend and I got more into discussion about the unexploited nature of seaweed on the British shores, and began experimenting with picking and preparing it in my kitchen,” Jane continues. “The more I used it, the more I learned, and the more I loved it.
“I’d been oblivious to how incredible it is for you, and how many different species there are each with their own flavour and nutritional profile.
“In a short period of time I was completely hooked. I’d found my ‘thing’ in life, and the start of a business idea was born.”
Having worked in environmental policy for 17 years, Jane was soon readying herself for stepping into the world of entrepreneurialism.
After much discussion with partner Ian – father to six year old Martha and three year old Louis – she decided to fully embrace her idea for a UK-based seaweed food product…and Octopus’s Garden Seaweed was born.
“By the time I finally committed to launch the business in the Autumn of 2017, we had been using seaweed in our family’s daily diet for a long time, and we were firm converts,” Jane enthuses.
“It had opened up a whole new food group for our cooking, and was something we could feel good about using because it’s a low-impact sustainable food stuff, which is incredibly under-used.
“During my maternity leaves I’d been able to investigate the idea of a business angle, and had traced some incredible companies which harvest seaweed in the British Isles.
“You can’t just go down to the shores and grab loads of seaweed if it’s for commercial use. You have to have a license to collect it and the license relates to a particular stretch of the coast.”
Jane explored biscuits, tapenade, pesto and plenty more variants along the way, but initially settled on a ‘seaweed stock’ – like a vegetable stock, but made using seaweed.
The seaweed stock later evolved into a much more concentrated ‘seaweed essence’ called Umami Drops. She later added another line– a pickled seaweed.
“It took me some time to condense my thinking around what I wanted to produce for my own ‘brand’,” Jane admits. “The pickled variant is just so multi-purpose. It’s great for accompanying sandwiches, seafood, burgers, cheese and biscuits, or adding to salads.
“The umami drops are used a bit like a super-healthy soy sauce replacement..or you can just have an incredible flavour hit if you eat them neat. They work as a natural flavour-enhancer. “It’s the kind of product that you start using and then wonder – how did I ever ‘not’ use this in my cooking. It’s good for you, sustainable, and truly tastes amazing.”
Two years into her business journey, Jane has a strong relationship with her carefully chosen seaweed supplier – Islander Kelp, based in Northern Ireland.
There, the seaweed is being cultivated in a Marine Conservation Zone, where it grows on ropes at sea. Islander Kelp farm three difference species of kelp including the ‘Alaria’ which is the one that Jane uses to make her products.
Jane then receives her supply, and sets to work at home creating her two product lines, and selling via her online shop, through a few small cafés and shops, and at the occasional markets.
She has high hopes her audience will continue to grow, with more and more people slowly falling in love with the idea of more ‘inventive’ products, and in a desire to make more sustainable food choices.
“I do think it’s a great time to be a food business which is going down a less traditional route,” she says. “Of course it’s a little scary, and yes, it’s early days and things are only on a small scale at the moment, but I’m confident that there’s a real movement happening around people thinking of the sustainability of food produce.
“That makes it such a good time for things like seaweed. My wish is that everyone could start to see the huge benefits of this incredible edible ingredient in the way that my family and I have.
“Honestly, it’s one of those things that once you start embracing it, you’ll never go back!”.
Did you know:
Seaweed is an amazing plant-based source of iodine. The UK is thought to be amongst the top ten iodine-deficient nations worldwide. Without adequate iodine, the thyroid struggles to produce thyroid hormones, and this has implications for the whole body. The main dietary sources of iodine in the UK are fish and dairy so, particularly for those turning to plant-based diets, it’s really important to ensure an adequate intake of iodine.
The word Umami (‘oo-mah-me’) originated in Japan where in 1908, Professor Kikunae Ikeda managed to isolate the glutamates from dashi broth made with kelp seaweed. He called the deep savoury taste of the glutamates ‘umami’, from the Japanese word ‘umai’, meaning delicious. Certain forms of seaweed are naturally rich in glutamates, which explains their satisfying savoury flavour and their flavour-enhancing properties. The ‘Alaria’ seaweed used by Octopus’s Garden Seaweed is one such species.
Jamie Oliver calls seaweed, “the most nutritious vegetable in the world” and credits it with helping him shed two stone . Heston Blumenthal recommended the NHS use seaweed to flavour hospital food in place of salt .
. ‘Why Jamie’s seaweed diet could help you get slim too,’ The Daily Mail, Sept 2015
. ‘Heston Blumenthal: add seaweed to NHS meals,’ The Telegraph, Dec 2011