Farming in water

It smells like the sea, lives in water, is grown in the Algarve, can be eaten and starts with an ‘s’. Ten to one your answer will be shrimps, sardines or seafood. But there’s more. In the hills near Monchique, Georges Porta and Cristina Palma Brito farm spirulina. A food worth knowing.

Pictures by Kyle Rodriguez

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2016


The stuff floating in the shallow tank resembles green paint that isn’t properly mixed yet. A dark colour with a few lighter bits swirling around, it’d be called Pine Forest or Midnight Courtyard in your local Aki. Take one sniff, however, and you instantly know this isn’t paint. It’s spirulina, as the seaweed smell reveals. Spirulina, or blue-green algae, is a cyanobacterium best known for being a superfood, like maca powder and chia seeds. You might have seen it in Instagram posts by trendy persons obsessed with this recent überhip craze, where spirulina powder is added to the likes of healthy, yet stylish spinach smoothies.

But for Georges Porta (61) (pictured below) it isn’t a hype. Originally from France where he managed an organic shop, Georges started taking spirulina 15 years ago and continued as he noticed its energising properties; he claims he hasn’t been ill since. Five years ago he moved to the Algarve with his wife Cristina Palma Brito (58). In the hills of Monchique, they set up a spirulina farm. Cultivating the spiral-shaped algae is new, at least in Portugal, but spirulina itself isn’t. In fact, it appeared on Earth 3.5 billion years ago, partly responsible for producing oxygen on this planet. Currently, it’s found naturally in places with alkaline, mineral-rich hot water, including lakes in India and Peru. It’s been discovered in the Doñana national park (Spain), and Georges is planning to look if the blue-green algae naturally occur in the Algarve as well.

For the moment though, Georges and Cristina are still occupied with farming. Their greenhouses, covered in yellow plastic, are placed on the Fóia, with views all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The location in the middle of nature complements the artisanal way the couple farms. To grow spirulina from an existing culture, they only need water and sun; photosynthesis will do the rest. George uses the water from their own spring. “It’s very pure, coming straight from the mountain so not polluted in any way, which is extremely important.” The water should be very alkaline, with a pH of around 10, and a bit salty. Sea water is too salty whereas tap water is full of chlorine, so not an option either. I ask him if he could use bottled water. “You’re serious, 30,000 litres?,” he replies with a wry smile.

The 30m3 of water is kept moving through the tank as the spirulina is sensitive to light: too much and it’d burn. The temperature is above 25˚C. Special tools exist to check the pH and concentration of the water, but the experienced Georges only needs his sense of sight and smell. He takes a deep breath and announces it’s good. Every 14th harvest, a microbiologic analysis confirms his findings. Harvest season runs from April/May to September/October. During those months, 100kg of spirulina gets produced. Each morning, Georges filters 10% of the water by pumping it through a permeable cloth, ending up with a spirulina mass of around 20kg. This gets pressed to get the remaining water out, further reducing its weight by half. The spirulina that’s left is fed through a sausage-making machine, which produces spaghetti-like strands of 2mm thick for easier drying.

In a hot room (40-45˚C), twenty trays filled with spaghetti-shaped spirulina are left to dry, which takes between 3 and 6 hours, depending on the humidity. Fans on the bottom of the room circulate the air. At the end of the drying process, Georges will be left with about 2kg of green spirulina strands, which are then broken into small sprinkles for easier packaging and transport. Together with the water from Fóia, the relatively low drying temperature makes all the difference. If it gets over 60˚C, important nutrients are lost. Like in most industrial-produced spirulina, which tastes bitter as it’s speed dried at temperatures of 80-100˚C. “The smell, the colour, it’s completely different,” Georges explains. “Sometimes you even see pasta with spirulina sold in the supermarket. That doesn’t make any sense: when it’s cooked, spirulina loses its nutrients.”

Freeze dried spirulina often comes from big companies, where profit is more important than product. “It’s difficult,” Georges admits. “Everyone wants to make money, but we need to speak ethical first. This isn’t a way to make a quick profit.” Now in their second harvesting season, plans for the future are being made at Spirulina da Serra, including adding two more tanks in the second greenhouse. “Our business has grown by word of mouth: local people tell each other ‘I took it last winter and I didn’t get ill’. Yes, making a living is important to me, but so is the human factor and being a part of the local community. Nowadays, young Portuguese people return to the land again; they appreciate agriculture more. They buy vitamin pills and supplements in supermarket, and even though those can’t compare to spirulina, it’s a good sign: people want to live healthy.”

Being able to work and live in the countryside is one of the reasons why George became a spirulina farmer. “Plus, I wanted to make a living by making something that’s good for people. Spirulina is very effective against malnutrition. In Portugal, 10% of the population suffers from malnutrition. Oh, and another 60% is obese. Nutrition is important and spirulina has a lot of benefits. It’s a good source of protein, rich in iron and gives you energy.”

In his native France, there are already 200 farms growing spirulina in an artisanal way, sharing their knowledge and working together in a federation. In Portugal, Georges hopes, this will be the case in the not too distant future. He isn’t worried about competition, welcoming others into the business. In fact, Georges is keen to share his secrets: “There’s no sense keeping this knowledge to myself. Wouldn’t it be way better if everyone would be healthy?”


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2016

Posted in Features, Food, People.