Seaweed harvest tradition in Brittany

Each year, in this area of Brittany, Association Karreg-Hir organises a Festival to commemorate those courageous people who during many years did a great job, seaweed harvesting ! The target of such event is, first of all, to respect a tradition which has enabled many families to lead a more or less decent life.

These photos, shot during the last Festival in September 2012, will take you into this “ambiance” where friendship, conviviality and tradition were invited.

In France, seaweed gathering dates back to Neolithic times… I am not going to tell you the history since these times.

Let’s bounce forward and in one go reach more recent periods. One point is worth knowing is that in Brittany, seaweed gathering had held a prominent place to the history of coastal people.

Before getting our feet into the early 50’s, you might be interested to know what were the fields in which seaweed was and is still being used : fertilizers for soil improvement, sodium bicarbonate, glass industry (up to the end of 18th century), soda production, food distribution and industry, water treatment, health and well-being …

In Finistère, Brittany, harvesters used, up to the early 50’s, a manual cutting method, some of them had the seaweed handled by a horse driven cart. After that, more modern ways were adopted, such as boats with cranes and “pifon” (type of helicoidal screw or spindle), (Breton word “ar pifoun”). In the 21st century, only boats are used for this type of harvest.

But let’s stay 60 years backwards and see how things were getting on. For a start, seaweed was mainly a family “business”. Men collected algae from the sea, even in Winter, with large rakes and women carried them at the edge of the shores. Sometimes too, the collection was loaded on boats which was then discharged into carts. Once there, the horse driven carts were used to carry the seaweed further on the shore, before the algae were spread on the dunes to be dried.

Collecting seaweed

There was also another way to collect these seaweed, 2 or 3 hand barrows, in French “civière” (Breton word “ar c’hravazh“), were laid on the ground, seaweed piled up, up to squared shaped heaps, in French “drome”, (Breton word “reud”) of 10 feet by 5 feet high, weight about 20 tons, these were securely tighten up. This type of raft was left on the ground until the tide goes up, thus after a while, floating and reaching the shore.

Building the heap

Waiting for the tide …

Ovens were dug along the coast, once the algae pre-dried, seaweed was burned in the ovens (Breton word “ar fourn soud“), these were lined in stones. The ovens facilitated the collection of cinder blocks or loaves of soda, called in French “pain de soude”,(Breton word “ar bara mor“), after that the seaweed was burned during 10 hours. These were sold to industrials for extraction of iodine, which was intensively used during several years.


Tooling and wooden shoes

I do hope you were interested in this retrospective of the Festival. If you happen to be around, do not hesitate, this is worth seeing ! In the past years,  I had myself the opportunity of attending this event, but as everyone I did not attend for such reason or for no reason at all. But in 2012, I decided that I will go.

This day has been most interesting in several fields. First about the harvest itself, then on the human side it was very rich and fruitful. I met wonderful persons who took from their time, to explain how gathering was formerly. They talked about that with “passion” as if they had themselves been the actors at the time. Many of them had members of their families who were totally devoted to their job. In spite of the weather, their own physical condition, they did not give up and were always “on the run” to accomplish their task.  One could feel their warmth and some conversations ended by myself feeling that heat, at such point to be emotional. One more detail is worth mentioning, the pleasant smell of the smoke when passing by the ovens, it was a special “perfume shop”.

I need to learn more about these people. Definitely, I will attend the 2013 edition !

If you have been interested in reading these few lines about seaweed harvesting… come back soon to visit our blog as another type of harvesting will be described by Nanette in a new post by the end of this week … See you there !

9 comments on “Seaweed harvest tradition in Brittany

  1. Thank you for this informative and very interesting post about seaweed harvesting. It is very fascinating to me, having grown up on the Canadian prairies in Northeast Montana, and no where near the sea! The pictures of the harvest are wonderful. Not only can I read about it, but I can see it also. Looking forward to Nanette’s harvest entry coming up.

    • Louise says:

      Glad you enjoyed reading and seeing this summary of seaweed harvest in Brittany. Thank you very much, Darla ! The human side of the Festival was the main point for me, I will have it on my mind and heart for quite a long time.

  2. Carol says:

    Thank you so much Louise. Really interesting. I have read about the tradition in the past but had not realised that it was revived annually. Fascinating and well done.
    I have only just returned from Bangkok which was fascinating if rather tiring at times in the high humidity; 35degrees whilst there.

    • Louise says:

      Carol, nice to “see” you there … Our goal through this narration is to spread Brittany’s tradition across the Sea… After your Bangkok experience, you better be ready for European Winter…

  3. Famille BELLOIR says:

    Louise, je ferai mon commentaire en français….il y aura moins d’erreurs. En plus de pratiquer mon anglais je te découvre plus bretonne que jamais, ton “post” est vraiment super intéressant, j’apprends des choses que je ne connaissais absolument pas et j’admire tes photos juste vraiment très belle. Biz à très vite

  4. […] loved your post this past week on the seaweed harvesting tradition in Brittany, France, and thought I would share with you a special “harvest” that takes […]

  5. Patrick Baschet says:

    De tres belles images qui donnent l’impression a celui qui les regarde qu’elles sont d’une autre epoque!

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