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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Kelp week starts this weekend: Here's what to know about and where to eat Conn. kelp

    New England Kelp Harvest Week, a project started by the Sugar Kelp Collective in 2021, runs from April 20-30 this year. The group of kelp farmers and activists works with restaurants, bakeries and fish markets to create special dishes and menus that use the sea vegetable, which grows in winter and is harvested in the spring.

    Across Connecticut, this means an opportunity for people to try dishes and cocktails made with kelp at restaurants, including two with James Beard Award-nominated chefs: Oyster Club and The Shipwright's Daughter in Mystic.

    Where to experience New England Kelp Harvest Week

    The Sugar Kelp Cooperative shared a list of restaurants and other businesses participating in Kelp Harvest Week, which may be updated on its website and Instagram:

    347 Kitchen & Cocktails, Niantic

    Flanders Fish Market, East Lyme

    Fork and Fire, Farmington

    GoldBurgers, Newington

    Fiddle Heads Co-op, New London

    Max Fish, Glastonbury

    Moromi, stores around Connecticut and online

    Nanas, Mystic

    Oko Kitchen, Westport

    Oyster Club, Mystic

    Seven Birds Ice Cream, Mystic

    The Shipwright's Daughter, Mystic

    Sift Bake Shop, Mystic and Niantic

    Whitecrest Eatery, Stonington

    White Gate Farm, East Lyme

    For the people who support the state's emerging kelp industry, though, this week represents an opportunity to get the word out about their work.

    The Connecticut Sea Grant, for example, is a public service organization that is helping teach aquaculture farmers in the state how to safely grow and harvest seaweed as well as get permits required to grow the crop.

    The program is also part of the University of Connecticut's College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources' Extension program, which aims to support agriculture throughout the entire state through educational outreach. It is funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as the state of Connecticut.

    According to UConn Associate Extension Educator Anoushka Concepcion, a major focus of Connecticut Sea Grant is to teach state farmers how to produce brown macroalgae, which has some variations, including sugar kelp.

    With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, Concepcion recently commissioned the creation of a mobile seaweed lab.

    "For the first project in the mobile seaweed lab, we'll be looking at nursery production and providing information and training for prospective farmers, current farmers, who want to be able to set up a small-scale nursery in their facilities to be able to produce seed for themselves," Concepcion said.

    The kelp can be used to create foods like pickled seaweed, crispbread with seaweed and more.

    "Basically anything that I use wakame for, I use sugar kelp for," said Tami Grooney, the chef at White Gate Farm in East Lyme, which has kelp dinners and cooking classes in the coming weeks.

    Wakame is a Pacific kelp, according to the Smithsonian. It's used in Japanese cooking, and Grooney said that she uses it to flavor miso soup.

    Oyster Club has served kelp bucatini, accompanied by a seaweed jalapeño aioli and grated soy-cured halibut in the past. GoldBurgers in Newington, one of the top hamburger restaurants, according to Connecticut Magazine, served sugar kelp as a hot dog topping. Grooney said that one popular application is kelp macaroni and cheese.

    "I found out that kelp and cheese is actually like a really common pairing in Ireland, where they farm and cultivate tons of seaweed," she said. "So kelp and cheddar are natural companions...In Korea and Japan, even, there are some dishes where they'll often combine sea vegetables and cheese."

    Concepcion and other researchers are also looking across the Atlantic in the hopes of learning more about kelp. In a few weeks, they'll travel to Scotland, which has an active seaweed industry, to meet with seaweed processors and look at equipment.

    The industry faces economic challenges as well as logistical ones in Connecticut, Concepcion said, like moving fresh seaweed quickly due to limited storage and processing facilities.

    "Seaweed is mostly water, it begins to decompose very quickly. And so that really limits access to markets as well," Concepcion said. "The produce has a limited shelf life and has to be moved quickly to the final consumer."

    Grooney uses her freezer to preserve the large quantity of kelp she gets during harvest week.

    "I'll blanch it, which makes it this beautiful grass-green color, and I'll portion and put it right in the freezer," she said. "I can then defrost it and use it for so many different applications."

    As far as the safety of eating kelp, Sea Grant and Concepcion work with the Connecticut Bureau of Aquaculture to create and develop seaweed food guidelines. The state of Connecticut tests the seaweed, as well as the water it's grown in.

    Concepcion also stressed that what is being grown by aquaculture farmers in Connecticut is native to the area. UConn researchers were able to start farming Connecticut's native sugar kelp in 1984, according to Concepcion.

    "(Seaweed) belongs in the waterways that we're cultivating ... So that's really, really important to just hit home and highlight, especially when we're trying to address many barriers that are preventing the industry from moving forward," Concepcion said.

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