Fundamental to the health of the ocean floor, seaweed has become emblematic of Hugo Roellinger’s cuisine.
Dulse, sugar kelp, sea lettuce, laminaria: in shades of brilliant green, deep red, vibrant purple, or glossy brown, the colors of fresh and dried seaweed, in the ocean or on the sand, paint the landscape of France’s northern Emerald Coast, where Hugo Roellinger grew up. Hugo’s father, chef Olivier Roellinger, was one of France’s first chefs to take an interest in this botanical resource. Now these marine plants have become a culinary building block at Le Coquillage restaurant – even though, at first glance, they might not reveal themselves in its dishes.
“The taste of the sea floor”
One need only walk along the shore to see what Hugo refers to as the “taste of the sea floor”: a mixture of the smells of dried seaweed, mud, salt spray, along with sun-warmed wild fennel and gorse. “This taste is a frontier between two worlds”, he says.
In his efforts to translate the territory and his personal history in innovative, edible ways, Hugo has gradually given seaweed pride of place in his cuisine, to the point that it now often forms the basis of what he prepares. “When I realized that meat was not part of my expressive territory, chicken broth, the cornerstone of French cuisine, gave way to an infusion of vegetables and seaweed, wakame and sugar kelp, a kind of Breton brown alga, nicknamed ‘Neptune's girdle’,” he explains.
Another structural base of his cuisine is “marine water”, a cold infusion of wakame, nori, kombu, and sea lettuce, rehydrated for 24 hours, which covers creations like a delicate grilled wild flat oyster with navy-bean miso and parsley, hidden beneath a veil of raw milk and plum blossoms. “This marine water may seem very pastel in nature, bordering on bland, but it’s also a very subtle taste of infinity – we don’t know where it ends, like the horizon. It’s like putting your head underwater and immersing yourself in that silence, a primary sensation that moves through time, never changing.”
These two foundations of his cooking find their roots in the estran, “the foreshore”, an unadorned recipe that puts the nose at water level: “I wanted to rediscover that experience of the sea depths, both with shellfish (clam, oyster, abalone) and all the seaweeds, which change with the tides and the seasons, flavored with this marine water, seaweed oil, and Poivre des Mers,” he says, referring to a special mixture of spices. “That’s where I started, and it trickled all over the rest of my cooking. Algae are part of our gustatory and olfactory territory here. But, unlike in Japan where they’ve been consumed for 8,000 years, they’re omnipresent... yet invisible to most people.”
Horizons and flavors
Surprisingly, seaweed was only officially approved for consumption in France in 1980. And it’s in early spring, when the fishing season has not yet begun, that shellfish and crustaceans are at their best, showing “that you can eat a profoundly marine menu without consuming fish,” Hugo explains. “It’s not about promoting seaweed consumption in absolute terms, but creating ethical and sustainable cuisine, because it has roots in a territory where algae are naturally present. They add sapidity and fluidity, but also have digestive and beneficial characteristics, promoting our guests’ well-being.”
This link between seaweed and landscape, horizon and flavors, is central to how Hugo sees cooking as a whole: “My cooking is quite liquid, using infusions, broths, and long vinaigrettes – not thickened, with minimal fats. The notion of ‘horizontality’ makes it possible to combine the ingredients in a way where no single element overwhelms the others.”
These magical algae even work in desserts, to which they add a welcome salinity: the subtle powdering of sea lettuce over a meringue makes the depth of a wild fennel sorbet and garden sorrel granita sparkle, like the sea surface in the sun.
“A memory of the taste of the sea”
While some seaweed is eaten more or less fresh (such as small dulse or sea lettuce), others, such as laminaria, have an aromatic power that intensifies when they are dried and matured for several years. In a dedicated cellar in Les Fermes du Vent, a wide variety of algae from the Breton coast patiently waits and ages, selected by Jean-François and Magali Arbona. They have been gathering, drying and aging seaweed – and some river plants – in northern Brittany for 35 years. “They possess priceless know-how,” says Hugo.
Just like vegetables, algae have their seasons. In Brittany, from April to early September, they offer a vast palette of aromas: “Sea lettuce tastes rather like slightly toasted bread crust. Dulse, when it’s young, has a very agreeable crunch and a nutty flavor. As for laminaria, whether it’s kombu or digitata, their umami and piquancy are what enhance other ingredients.”
Like a rainbow of flavors to mix and match, Hugo feels that dried seaweeds have a unique quality: “They’re like a memory of the taste of the sea, bearing traces of the climatic influence of the year they were harvested. They crystallize and capture the taste of the sea over time, much like a wine evokes its terroir and vintage.”