By Doreen Leggett
The spring day was cold, but the greenhouse Jamie Bassett was standing in felt cozy as he and Richard Curtiss picked dried kelp from lines strung from the ceiling.
“We’ve had a banner year,” Bassett said, popping a piece of crispy kale into his mouth. “They dried beautifully. It is very nice, crunchy, kind of tastes like umami.”
Some call umami the fifth taste after sweet, sour, bitter and salt. Bold, savory, it has driven the recent popularity of kelp. The bulk of the product comes from Asia, but it is increasingly grown in New England.
Bassett, Curtiss and Carl Douglass co-own Chatham Kelp, one of three companies permitted on the Cape (there are a few on the islands). It is the only one that is a standalone farm, not associated with a shellfish grant.
They had the idea several years ago, but between developing a business plan and navigating a nine-agency permitting gauntlet (ultimately receiving all unanimous votes), they planted their first crop late in 2018.
The state Division of Marine Fisheries was one of those agencies and Christopher Schillaci, who was the division’s aquaculture specialist at the time, remembers the project well.
Schillaci knew kelp was a nascent industry, with undeveloped markets and done at the most inauspicious time to be on the water – the middle of winter. Few people could have made it happen, but after meeting the trio he thought they just may make it work.
“I always had hopes for these guys because they had the background that would make them successful,” he said. “These are folks you can have honest conversations with, they understand it’s not going to be a breeze.”
Schillaci, who now works as Aquaculture Coordinator in the Greater Atlantic Region for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the three hustled to find markets and understood the technical and biological aspects of the venture. They could give TED talks he said.
“They went out and did what they said they were going to do and that helps build confidence in a new industry,” Schillaci said.
Bassett is from Chatham, his family goes back generations, and he has known Douglass, also a shellfisherman, for close to 30 years. Douglass was friends with Curtiss and introduced him to Bassett. As fate would have it, they were all sitting at a popular local hangout, the Red Nun, talking about Douglass’s desire to have an oyster grant.
Since Chatham doesn’t allow new grants, they started spit balling other ideas.
“We were trying to think outside the box,” Bassett said. “It grew from there, kind of organically.”
The first year they started small and planted five strings, with the help of GreenWave, a Connecticut company that farms kelp and helps others get started.
Most of the harvest was sold to upscale spots that make a point of celebrating local food.
Christopher Jenkins, a chef at Chatham Bars Inn, was an early convert and remains intrigued. Stopping by the greenhouse, talking about the joys of fly fishing (and the incredible lure-making skills of CBI’s head chef Anthony Cole), Jenkins made plans to get as much kelp as he could.
“I’ll take whatever you have left,” he said.
Douglass, who recently had a seaweed chef with a cooking show reach out for a few pounds, understands the kelp’s allure. For starters, “you can ground it up and make it into seasoning,” he said.
Chefs will blanch it so it turns bright green, added Curtiss, and it’s good in miso soup or served as a salad with sesame oil.
Jenkins agreed and pointed out that if kelp is frozen it can last for months.
“We could use it for everything,” he said.
As the owners filled totes, occasionally popping a morsel, they said this was the first time they had dried the harvest. They still had four big totes of kelp, just harvested that morning, to bring in.
“This dried out nice,” said Curtiss, before heading out to Bassett’s boat at the rear of the greenhouse.
This year is shaping up differently than last, so they did not have a lot of kelp available for restaurants.
“We’re going an alternate route,” said Bassett.
Some of the kelp harvested went to new partnerships, such as an arrangement with Stephen Wright of Chatham Shellfish Company, which shipped kelp with oysters, clams and mussels as part of a promotion that helped restaurants across the country. But kelp, which can go for about $64 a pound, has many uses beyond a sea vegetable, Bassett explained.
“The best, in my opinion, is the cosmetic market,” said Bassett.
“For example, kelp face masks. Not the kind of masks we are dealing with today,” Curtiss added, referring to COVID-19 protection.
Bassett explained that this year the majority of the harvest was going to be used in luxury soaps bearing the Chatham Kelp name, produced on Cape at Atlantic Soap Company – which is about to celebrate its one year anniversary. It should be available in the fall, before the holidays.
Caroline Laye, the owner and soap maker of the Falmouth shop, said Curtiss reached out late last year with the idea. The partnership made sense because she tries to use all local ingredients with local seawater as base.
“I am just really excited about this collaboration,” Laye said.
The hope is to make something elegant and sophisticated. The presence of Cape-grown kelp will serve as a moisturizer and add minerals to the soap as well as beauty.
“It’s going to have a flecky sort of look to it,” Laye said. “It will be a lot more dynamic.”
What has struck her about this time of COVID is the creative ways local businesses are teaming up. And, Laye said with a laugh, Bassett’s enthusiasm is off the charts.
“Jamie wants to take over the world with this kelp soap,” she said.
Chatham Kelp is running out of product, but next year will be different, they say. They plan on increasing the number of strings planted from 10 to 15.
A few days before Chef Jenkins walked into the greenhouse, Bassett and then Curtiss had pulled into a quiet landing on Barn Hill Road.
Bassett, wearing a kelp green sweatshirt Curtiss had gotten emblazoned with the company name, hopped out of his pickup and put his 18-foot Carolina Skiff into the water. Curtiss jumped aboard. The ride to the kelp farm was short, with the familiar slam of a metal-bottomed boat against the waves.
Only a small portion of the 50-acre farm is used, and bright, yellow buoy balls with Chatham Kelp written on them mark the area.
Bassett maneuvered the boat, which has a mooring arm attached. Besides shellfishing he is in sales, fluent French helping him land a long-time job with an outdoors outfitter in Canada. Bassett said he had first got the job in 2003 when it looked like the Chatham wild shellfishery was on its way out – it has since rebounded.
The farming occupation is good for them in many ways. They all have multiple jobs and most of the time they only have to go out once a week, or every few weeks, and the season runs from November to early May. So they avoid most user conflicts, and fill in what can be a slow time of year.
The kelp is grown on horizontal lines, about seven feet under the water. The seeds come on plastic lines about the thickness of kite string, woven through the rope.
“It’s microscopic,” Bassett said. “Seed is always an issue. We are in the process of getting our own seed together, so we can be in control of the process.”
They have learned a lot in the past few years. Making sure the rope is kept off the bottom so the seeds aren’t scraped away is just one lesson.
With the boat stopped, Curtiss swung a buoy aboard and began slowly pulling up the line. Short kelp appeared, maybe an inch or so, and then thick luxuriant kelp began filling the tote.
“Golden baby kelp. As fresh as it gets,” said Curtiss.
The two had three 200-foot lines to get into the boat that morning. They passed a knife and a fid – a tool used to splice gear – back and forth, separating the lines, and seemed pleasantly surprised by the amount of kelp coming aboard.
“Damn that’s a lot,” said Bassett.
Bassett maneuvered to the next line, got hung up a bit and swore under his breath.
“Sorry about that,” he said.
Well, salty language can be expected with kelp fishermen, Curtiss joked.
“We work well together. We have a good time out here,” he added, turning back to hauling.
“It’s perfect,” Bassett said as more kelp came aboard.