At Neptune’s Table

By Malu Lambert

Photography & Styling by C&D Heierli

Glass jars of dried seaweed are lined up on a scrubbed wood table at The Flagship. Standing in front of them is Bruce Robertson, sea lettuce in hand, and with a beard to rival Neptune’s.

Located in Simon’s Town, The Flagship is a one-of-a-kind culinary destination. First off, the chef lives there with his family and, along with his small kitchen team, serves five-course seafood lunches to groups of up to 16 people at a time. There’s also pristine, beach-y accommodation. While others may call their establishments ‘home from home’, Bruce calls his a ‘gourmet home’.

Though it must be said that Bruce doesn’t offer just any ordinary seafood experience. Think: sea urchin noodles, pickled periwinkles, plough snails, seaweed spaghetti, spirulina risotto, and so on. The whole set-up overlooks the midnight blue disc of False Bay and, while he takes in this view, Bruce rambles on about edible seaweed.

“Sea creatures take time and effort,” he says. “Foraging, cleaning, cooking, pickling. You spend half of your time looking for them.” The seafood savvy chef presses the point that what he does is all aboutsustainability. “We have a responsibility to the ocean.” 

Like mushrooms—the number one prize for foragers—there’s a kaleidoscope of edible seaweed out there. You find it in the intertidal zones, or washed up on the shore, or simply floating out in the open sea. Some of South Africa’s seaweed is better used for garnish than for eating, though. “Try this and you’ll see why,” says Bruce, handing me a piece of ribbed fern, purple and lacy. The flavour of iodine is overpowering. “Just like the ’shroom-hunters, you have to know what you’re looking for.”

Bruce imports some of his seaweed from Ireland for just this reason. Another factor is that South African seaweed can be quite stiff, possibly as a result of our seas being more tumultuous than the big bays where the Irish harvest their aquatic crop. Bruce holds up one of the best seaweeds for eating: it’s called sea lettuce, or ulva. “It’s good for salads, stews, broths…”

Inside the glass jars are hanging wrack seaweed (spaghetti-like), ribbed ferns (best for garnish),samphire (or wild sea asparagus, as Bruce likes to call it), spirulina (earth’s oldest edible algae), and pickled periwinkles (a bowl of these with a beer is the tip). In between it all is the restaurant’s mascot, Alikreukel, a sea snail shell with cartoon eyes pasted on it. 

We break seaweed bread open with our hands—a genius idea of combining two of the world’s greatest scents, the ocean and baking. Aside from the bread, Bruce also makes his own seaweed salt.

There are many ways to use seaweed for cooking. “I’m going to show you how to make a sea geyser,” Bruce says, his eyes a mix of intensity and mischief. “The locals keep it very quiet.” We head over to a station in the kitchen. It’s an amalgamation of a family space—his young daughter is sitting on the counter mixing a chocolate drink—and a professional kitchen, with sea curiosities and edibles everywhere...

“It must be fresh,” Bruce says, grasping a section of bamboo kelp (the brown seaweed with a bulbous head you often see on Cape shores). To make an oceanic pressure cooker, he slices off the frilly fronds on the circumference of the bulb, cuts a smaller section of the stem, and inserts it into the hole, tightening it with garden-hose clamps and bunging it up with a wine-bottle cork.

This demo model is empty but Bruce says: “Fill it up with pieces of fish, prawns, baby squid—anything you like. Then some wine, Noilly Prat, herbs, butter. Once all your ingredients are in, cook it on the braai or in a hot oven.” The vessel imparts a sea-freshness to the dish—and it is a pretty impressive party trick, too.

Top chefs cooking with edible seaweed 

There are only a handful of chefs cooking with the ocean’s weeds. Well-known rule-breaker and top chef Richard Carstens from Tokara says: “Most people only know the toasted nori sheets from sushi restaurants. Seaweed isn’t widely available. We use seaweeds like kombu and kelp to make dashi stocks or to cure fish. It adds a subtle, sweet umami flavour in dishes like cob cheeks with lacto-fermented gooseberries and red seaweed, or tuna sashimi and tartare-wrapped sea lettuce with seaweed vinaigrette and seaweed persillade.”

Margot Janse of The Tasting Room says, “We use West Coast sea lettuce to make our own sorrel nori that we serve with an octopus dish.”

Christiaan Campbell of Delaire Graff Restaurant uses sea lettuce as a vessel for oysters.

With a wealth of seekos at his doorstep, Kobus van der Merwe of Oep Ve Koep in Paternoster is a regular forager along the Strandveld coastline. “I mostly pick fresh seaweed in tidal pools at low tide,” says the blonde-haired chef. “Fresh, raw seaweed can be very subtle, adding texture and a hint of sea freshness. Dried, the flavour intensifies and adds an umami-rich depth to stocks, soups and sauces. Seaweed has been quite undervalued in South Africa. People are only now starting to wake up to its versatility and health properties.”

Kobus says in Europe, and of course in Asia, historically it has been used more extensively. The most famous seaweed staple from Wales is perhaps laverbread (cooked laver seaweed puréed or minced and combined with oatmeal). Kobus, however, wraps laver around pan-seared venison, or steams it with mussels and dark lager. He tosses sea lettuce in salads along with bokkom and shoreline succulents, or uses it to add ‘oceanic freshness’ to steamed fish.

Chef Eric Bulpitt, avid forager and commander-in-chief at the Restaurant at Newton Johnsonspends his mornings in the forest scanning for herbs and mushrooms, or traipsing along the edible coastline of the Overberg. “Seaweed adds an amazing burst of ocean flavour to dishes and is packed with umami,” he says.

He also cures and makes dashi with kombu. Sea lettuce in his kitchen finds its way into flavouring in risottos and sauces. Or he dries, blanches, and then deep-fries it for a crispy garnish. “Seaweed is very much a world trend. Almost all seaweeds are edible in one form or another. It’s not a new ingredient, though. It’s the superfood of old,” says Eric.

Rich in mineral elements, seaweed is said to contain more vitamins than fruit and veg. The litany of health properties include: iodine, calcium, magnesium, iron, vitamins C and A, protein, vitamins B, alpha-linolenic acid, EPA, and more.

Keen to reap the benefits of this sea bounty? Make sure to get a licence applicable to your area (the local post office should be able to help you) and invest in Two Oceans, A Guide to Marine Life of Southern Africa, a field book covering the most common forms of marine life populating our coasts, including seaweed.

So next time you’re asked that famous desert island question, perhaps your answer should rather be the aforementioned reading material, or Bruce Robertson, if he’s available.

Head over to our blog for step-by-step instructions on how to make a Sea Geyser  as well as a corresponding recipe from chef Bruce Robertson.

And... try this recipe:
Coconut Soup with Pearl Moss and Prawns