Public Market serves up hearty helpings

Lori Sowa and her 2-year-old daughter Morgan, of Juneau, taste samples of bull kelp jelly made by the Sitka-based Simple Pleasures Jelly Shop at the Public Market in Centennial Hall on Saturday afternoon.

Juneau shoppers turned out in droves this weekend at the Public Market to treasure hunt for the perfect holiday gift to give locally or send to friends and family in the Lower 48 .

Handmade jewelry, candles, scarves, hats and other trinkets were among the items being sold at the 100-plus kiosks in Centennial Hall and the Juneau Arts & Culture Center.

But perhaps one of the most popular items that attracted a steady stream of customers from Friday through Sunday falls into the category of “weird foods” — bull kelp food products, to be exact.

Renee Pierce of Sitka’s Simple Pleasures Jelly Shop rang up curious customer after customer purchasing any of the five Alaskan kelp-based products she and her husband, Brian, make from scratch — kelp pickles, kelp marmalade, cranberry kelp relish, mango kelp relish and mango kelp chutney.

“I just figured it would be really disgusting, but it was really good,” Elise Reichel of Juneau said to a friend while sampling the marmalade.

“It smells salty but the taste is really sweet,” another taste-sampler commented.

The Pierces have been making homemade Alaskan jams from wildflowers and berries for about 12 years and showcasing them at the Public Market for just as long. But in the past two to three years, they’ve expanded to include the sea vegetable collection, hoping it will be just as profitable. This year marked the kelp-based relish and chutney debuts.

“The jams are the backbone of our business,” Renee Pierce said, “but we’re kind of branching out with more products. We’re testing the market right now.”

The kelp is harvested from kelp beds in the Pacific Ocean about an hour north of Sitka. The couple got the idea when a friend took them on a glass-bottomed boat tour and asked them to come up with something to serve the boaters on the tour. The Pierces immediately thought of making something from the tons of kelp that grows in the area about a foot underwater in low tide.

Kelp is naturally tender and sometimes sweet, with a decent sugar content, she said. They are hollow in the middle, so making pickles out of the rings made perfect sense, Pierce said. Kelp is also generally flavorless, but she said thankfully, her husband came up for a fix for that.

“He’s a master in the kitchen,” she said. “He’s really good at putting together spices and things.”

One great thing about the kelp, she noted, is that its bountiful. Whenever the kelp is harvested, it is always fully grown back by the next week, she said.

The kelp products passed the taste and smell tests by a wide margin at the Public Market, one woman, a marine biologist, raved. Not to mention, kelp is a natural source of iron and other trace minerals, making it nutritionally beneficial.

“You get a different spectrum of nutrients from marine products than you do from traditional vegetables like cucumbers, “ said Mandy Lindeberg, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marine biologist who penned “The Field Guide to Seaweeds.

A friend first gave Lindeberg the kelp pickles as a gift, and she said her first reaction was, “Where did you get that?”

She’s been hooked ever since, she said.

For Lori Sowa and her 2-year-old daughter Morgan, the kelp products made the perfect gift to send to family down south.

“They’re pretty adventurous,” she said. “I think they’ll be up for it.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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