Chef Gary Fishwick is kneading a soft lump of bright green sourdough on a demonstration table at the Manly Art Gallery.
Above him hang quirky shapes of dried seaweed and small plastic bags of water, part of the Manly Seaweed Forests Festival currently on show at the gallery.
Their reflections on the surrounding white walls feel like ghostly mobile apparitions.
Fishwick, who is head chef at Terrara House, Jervis Bay, on the NSW south coast, is showing us one of the ways powdered seaweed can be added to regular daily foods.
He adds the bright green powder gradually by hand to the dough, continuing to knead it.
“It comes from a unique Australian green seaweed called Number 84 (Ulva sp.84),” he tells us.
“It’s like a sea lettuce and is farmed in the Shoalhaven,” he says.
“You’ll notice hints of truffle and garlic when you smell it.”
He passes the green powder around so we can all have a sniff. An overwhelming memory of Spirulina floods my nostril.
Together with the entrepreneurial marine ecologist Dr Pia Winberg, he also works at Phyco Health creating new seaweed creations and assisting in food production.
Listening to a panel of scientists later in the day, I discovered that Pia had set up a seaweed farm in 2015 near Nowra on the NSW south coast and founded Phyco Health, specifically for seaweed product development, and another company, Venus Shell Systems for seaweed product development.
On the panel, hosted by journalist Joanna Saville, were Uncle Ken Jones, a Boandik Elder from South Australia, Zoe Brittain, an environmental anthropologist and PhD student at Deakin University, Warrnambool, Dr Libby Swanepoel, senior lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at the University of the Sunshine Coast and chef Gary Fishwick.
While listening to the speakers, I snacked on a packet of Phyco Bites, small muesli-style bars made with Phycotein seaweed pellets, rice malt syrup, macadamias, cranberries, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pepitas, coconut flakes and tahini. Yummy.
“Australia has the highest species diversity of seaweed in the world along the Great Southern Reef,” said Pia.
“We consume only a few yet each one offers a variety of different nutrients often lacking in Australian vegetables such as iodine, iron and zinc”.
The smell of Gary Fishwick’s flatbreads, spread with soft goats feta, garlic, olive oil and a mix of fresh herbs from his kitchen garden, wafted through the room while we listened. He’d cut the lightly charred discs into triangles and they were handed out on bamboo plates to everyone in the audience.
I scoffed mine down. Like the Phyco Bites, they were both delicious and nutritious.
But seaweed is not just beneficial for our health. It’s also beneficial for our planet. At a panel held earlier in the day, environmental expert Professor Tim Flannery spoke of seaweed as being a great source of hope.
“After the failure of the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in 2009, I realised we had fewer options for drawing down carbon,” he said.
“That’s when I started looking at seaweed. There’s more genetic diversity (14,000 recorded species) in seaweed than in land based plants.
He pointed out that 70% of the earth is covered with water and that seaweed photosynthesis draws down carbon and emits oxygen.
“There are 660 marine canyons in the ocean. Seaweed drifts into these and takes carbon with it.”
Alongside Flannery on the panel were Sahira Bell, a PhD student from Western Australia who is studying the effect of marine heatwaves on our collapsing golden kelp forest systems; Oscar McMahon, founder and director of Young Henry in Newtown, Sydney, who plans to be the first brewery in the world to emit oxygen, not carbon; and Sam Elsom, Asparagopsis seaweed farmer and environmentalist, whose seaweed aquaculture farm is the first of its kind in Australia.
Sahira Bell’s mantra summed it up: “people protect what they love, and love what they understand.”
“This is the year to act,” said Flannery.
“Australia is running well behind. The Americans, Europeans and Chinese understand that.”
He quoted David Attenborough from Life on Earth:
“What we need to do now is let the earth heal. We’ve upset the balance.”
A stroll around the gallery reveals a stunning Seaweed Arboretum with botanical art installations by artists Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford called Forest, Flora and Float.
Different varieties of seaweed were pressed, dried and sculpted while still wet, then mounted in acrylic boxes and the results are exquisite.
Don’t miss it.
It’s on at Manly Art Gallery & Museum, West Esplanade, Manly, Australia until May 9th.