Harvesting Alaska: Southeast couple turns kelp into cash
The shores of southeast Alaska are full of food. Fishing is a major industry in the state capital, but when Matt Kern and Lia Heifetz, of Barnacle foods, go out on the water, it's for a different kind of catch.
The company sells seafood, but not in the traditional sense. Kelp is their craft.
The young couple turns the green tubes into tasty snacks, like salsa and pickles.
"You can see here, we're coming up to a pretty large kelp bed," Kern points out on a boat trip near Shelter Island, where the couple harvests the marine algae. "We’re in about 30 feet of water and it’s low tide, so at high tide, we’d be at about 20 feet deeper and the kelp would probably be under water."
In its raw form, kelp is incredibly salty, which serves as a natural flavoring.
"It’s actually a higher percentage of potassium and other kinds of trace elements that are harder for you to find," said Kern. "So, it’s salty but it’s really healthy salt."
Kelp also absorbs other flavors.
"The seaweed is kind of interesting like that," said Heifetz. "It really has a strong umami flavor which is savory, and it can bring out other flavors more intensely."
Most important, Heifetz says, is keeping the food fresh. Each batch harvested from the water must be processed or dried within a couple of days to retain quality.
Heifetz and Kern have been eating kelp this way for years, so much so, the two say their bodies start to crave it when they go long stretches without having some.
"Kelp salsa is a regional delicacy, so there are people in Gustavus, in particular, who have been making it for a long-time. And we learned from a good friend of ours how to make kelp salsa, so we’d come back from a fishing trip, and if we didn’t catch any fish we’d come back with a five-gallon bucket of kelp and turn it into kelp salsa and kelp pickles," said Heifetz. "I think it’s one of the most intimate ways that you can connect and learn about your surroundings."
With their storefront in downtown Juneau, The Port, Heifetz and Kern are connecting Alaska Kelp with tourists from around the world-- supplying a demand many never knew existed.
"We realized this could be more than just making salsa out of kelp and pickles out of kelp, but a way to add value to resources that we have here in Alaska," Heifetz explained.
The couple offers free samples of each product. Getting just the right flavor comes from a careful combination of other spices, as Kern explains in the kitchen where the food is made.
"We have a lot of seeds like coriander, mustard seeds," Kern says as he prepares a batch of kelp pickles. "We’re always refining our flavors and that’s something that we’re still working on."
From stove top to storefront, the couple is making waves. And, Alaska sea kelp is riding those waves to places it could never have reached.