Marine biologist and project manager of Healthy food from the Great Belt, Claus Falconi, is holding out a piece of bladder wrack slimily gleaming with moisture as it reflects the afternoon sun. It is fresh from the Great Belt, hand-picked just off the beach of the island of Omø. “You have to try this. It’s quite delicious,” he urges.
I involuntarily swallow, readying myself for this culinary foray into yet another adventurous branch of the New Nordic Cuisine. This is Denmark after all, I tell myself as Claus enthusiastically hands me the wet plant. At Noma in Copenhagen, twice labelled the best restaurant in the world, the chefs have been known to sprinkle pure dirt over dishes, for heaven’s sake – as well as utilizing seaweed and algae to great gastronomic effect. Cannot be that bad then, surely? And so I take a bite of the bladder wrack (whose name, granted, does not do the plant any favours in print). It tastes like … well, the sea. And something else, with a hint of iodine and ammoniac. Something both strangely universal and wholly unique. It is an acquired taste for sure, but trust me; it is not half bad.
“Umami,” says Claus upon reading the puzzled look on my face. “The taste is umami.”
The so-called fifth taste was first described by the Japanese in the early 1900s and follows the four common tastes, sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Umami lingers in the mouth, just as it magically enhances the flavour of other foods when used in cooking. And this is just one of the many, many reasons why seaweed (or kelp, as the family of brown algae, Phaeophyceae, to which bladder wrack belongs, is called), has for centuries been so popular in the Far East, where it is used both fresh (in endless variations of salads) and dried (as a spice and often in place of regular salt).
“If you wrap a freshly caught fish in seaweed and leave it in a cool place for 24 hours before cooking it, the taste will enhance greatly. And if you add seaweed salt to a chilli dish, you better keep the fire hose nearby,” grins Claus, who has been doing research into seaweed and its properties in both Denmark and Italy for over 20 years. As well as cooking his fair share of dishes with the stuff, naturally.