Scarlette Le Corre, a fisherwoman, has quietly revolutionised fishing in France and the larger story of seaweed cultivation, culture, and cuisine in Brittany.
Scarlette Le Corre edges slowly through the sun-kissed shallows at low tide, kaleidoscoped emerald sea lettuce and ginger sea spaghetti around her rubber boots like two-tone marbling ink. No step is taken without first inspecting the marine life at her feet – this highly trained eye never misses a subaqueous beat. Snip. The ebbing ocean reveals a head of rock-clinging sea lettuce, which she deftly cuts off and places in her bucket of water. Snip. The chop is a fistful of coarse red dulse and clumps of green hairy cheveux de mer (grass kelp), which sea-vegetable gourmets in France simply rinse, twirl in olive oil, and eat.
“Nature is generous and provides us with many riches,” Le Corre said. “I’ve been eating seaweed for 35 years and am in good shape – eat algae and life is very, very beautiful.”
Le Corre is the original female French fisher, deceptively petite and passionate, and not afraid to speak her mind. She was one of the first women in the country to receive her Brevet de mécanicien à la pêche, allowing her to captain a saltwater fishing boat, in 1979, and has since spent four decades working tirelessly in a masculine industry where women at sea are traditionally thought to bring bad luck.
Her day starts at 4.30 a.m. in Le Guilvinec, a down-to-earth fishing port in Finistère, southern Brittany, where street graffiti reads “plus de pêcheurs, moins de supermarchés” (more fishermen, less supermarkets) and the men spend two weeks at sea working the town’s 43-strong fleet of deep-sea trawlers. By 06:00, Le Corre is alone at sea, tending her cultivated sea fields of wakame garlands or casting her nets for sole, red mullet, and the occasional lobster or octopus to sell at morning markets in Le Guilvinec and neighbouring Penmarc’h. Afternoons are spent on the beach gathering seaweed.
“There’s no room for failure in a male-dominated profession,” Le Corre told me. as we scrambled together across wet, slimy rocks. “As a woman in a man’s world, I don’t ask men for help; I take full responsibility until the end.” When you mention retirement to this feisty grandmother, her pace quickens. Her mystery? “Every morning, a slice of bread or toast with tartare d’algues made from raw seaweeds, olive oil, colza oil, and rock samphire vinegar,” she proudly explained.
The sea lettuce, dulse, and nori are all edible seaweeds. Le Corre forages for the tangy, strong-tasting spread on the rocks around Pointe de la Men Meur in Le Guilvinec. Long ago, historians identified this flat granite headland, pocketed with strange lunar-like sinkholes, as the location of a quarry where millstones were dug out in the Middle Ages, and later, until the 17th Century, round stone bases for the many roadside crosses that dot this Celtic region of north-west France.
Scavenging for wild algae along Finistère’s rocky coast has long been a natural pastime in this seafaring region of the world. Le Corre, the daughter of a fisherman, began working with seaweed in the early 1990s to supplement her fishing income. long before the ugly-but-edible sea vegetable became a fashionable “superfood”. Algaculture is a centuries-old living Breton tradition with which she grew up. “I’ve been collecting seaweed since I could walk. My parents left, and I followed them “She stated. Le Corre typically gathers 10 tonnes of thongweed (sea spaghetti), Breton kombu, and royal kombu along the rocky seashore in April alone, at the height of the wild seaweed season – all by hand with a knife and scissors.
Scavenging for wild algae along Finistère’s rocky coast has been a natural pastime in this staunchly seafaring part of the world since time immemorial.
The powerful memorabilia at the Écomusée des Goémoniers et de l’Algue (Museum of Seaweed Harvesters and Seaweed) in Plouguerneau, Pays des Abers, tells the Breton algaculture story. Photographs of 19th-century goémoniers (seaweed harvesters) raking kelp – the generic name for brown drift weeds – washed ashore on sandy Breton beaches and piling it onto horse-drawn waggons with pitchforks are available. Antiquarian prints show them carting the kelp to nearby sand dunes to dry and burn it in open-air ovens for several days. The stench of acrid smoke was repulsive, but the valuable iodine-rich ash could be sold to glass-making iodine factories on the northern coast. The remaining cinders were spread as fertiliser on farmland. Other harvesters worked out at sea from flat-bottomed wooden boats, guillotineing strands of weed growing in wild underwater kelp forests near the shore and around offshore islands with long-handled sickles: 25 tonnes of cut kelp produced 1 tonne of ash or 15kg of iodine. Harvesting was strictly seasonal (March to September), and everyone had a second job – fishing or farming – to supplement their income year round.
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According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2020 World Fisheries and Aquaculture Report, algaculture now produces more than 30 million tonnes of seaweed globally each year (35.82 million tonnes in 2019 compared to 4.2 million in 1990 and 0.56 million in 1950). However, European farmers continue to account for less than 1% of global production and prefer wild stock to farmed stock. The landscape is slightly different in Brittany, where the rocky coastline tangoes for 2,700km and 1,000-odd islands and islets dot the pristine offshore waters. Brittany’s seaweed farmland is unparalleled, thanks to exceptional water quality and miles of protective rocky shores that keep strong currents at bay.
“Seaweed thrives in warm water and sunlight.” “This is why it grows in shallower waters near land,” explained Le Corre. A swarm of white dots bobbing on the water in the sea, not far from shore, could easily be mistaken for a colony of resting seagulls. Her cultivated sea field is the floating grid of white buoys.