Nourished by the Sea

A seaweed celebration offers a glimpse into Guernsey’s past.

Published December 23, 2015

The beach at L’Eree, on the west coast of Guernsey—the second-largest Channel Island, off the northwest coast of France—pulsates with the energy of a fair on a sweltering summer’s day. Vendors lined up under green canvas tents peddle handmade cards decorated with seaweed and crab pots traditionally woven from willow. Children dart through the crowd and tumble into one another’s sand castles. Our community has gathered to celebrate vraic—seaweed in Guernésiais, the local language that dates back to Guernsey’s settlement.

Stall after stall offers free food, all made with vraic: cookies and cakes with a salty aftertaste; bread with a crunchy vraic-laden crust; and a vraic-and-onion bhajee, a tantalizing fusion of cuisines from Guernsey and India.

Seaweed hasn’t always been a part of Guernsey’s culinary scene though. Beginning in the 16th century, farmers collected vraic from the beaches to enrich the island’s soil. This harvest was big business; careful regulations restricted it to certain times of year and outlined how to stake a patch of vraic. But today, hardly anyone harvests it. Banking has supplanted agriculture as the island’s major industry.

Today, we eat vraic as a curiosity. But its origins on the table come from a tragic time in Guernsey’s history: the Second World War, when Nazi Germany occupied the island, along with its smaller neighbors Sark and Alderney.

Under the Nazis, islanders experienced famine, and boiled vraic and seaweed jams and jellies became a part of their diet. So we gather to celebrate a food that helped to save many of our ancestors’ lives.

On Vraic Day we also celebrate the word vraic, one of the few patois words that remains in wide use on the island. Occupation not only starved our people of food, it endangered our language. The Nazis tried to stamp Guernésiais out of existence, and by 2001 only 1,327 people still spoke it fluently.

It is comforting to know that the sea sustained my ancestors through that dark and hungry time. Among the stalls, with everyone drawn together by one of the ocean’s most versatile harvests, I realize that the sea sustains something else we could easily lose: our culture.