If you’ve ever watched Popeye you would have got the idea that every now and then, eating a little bit of ‘green stuff’ (in Popeye’s case, spinach) will make you big, strong and ready to handle anything.
However, I hate to say it, but I think our beloved sailor man may have been missing a trick. Yes, his tin of spinach certainly seemed to get him out of some tight jams (as well helping him to sweep Olive Oil off her feet). But the thing is - he had to eat a whole can.
Now I admit, he did do this rather quickly (spurred on by his theme tune, he would usually down it all in one heroic gulp). Even so, I think he would have been interested to know that there’s another kind of green stuff that can offer the same (if not more) invigorating health benefits - and all you need is a pinch.
Have you ever heard of spirulina?
Don’t worry, neither had I. But people kept suggesting that I visit the place in Monchique that grows it and I thought it was about time I followed up on this lead. So, one rainy morning, I went up into the mountains to see what I could find.
Heading up towards Fóia, the Google Maps lady suddenly insisted I hang a sharp left! Down the mountainside I went until, much to my relief, I saw the greenhouses.
A mountain of Zen
Here I met Georges, a cool, calm Frenchman (and no wonder, I later found out he was a practitioner of ‘zen’). Just the sort of enlightened chap, I reflected, that you might hope to meet on a foggy mountain top.
Georges and his Portuguese wife Cristina moved here to start this place over 10 years ago. He used to run a health food shop in France but wanted to escape the city and to live a more peaceful life in the country. Cristina wanted to come back to Portugal and so they decided to move to Monchique and see if they could find a way of using a patch of otherwise infertile land to grow what they thought was the most fascinating health food that Georges sold at the shop.
Ancient food of the Gods
I followed Georges into his greenhouse where he had a shallow tank of green water. This is because spirulina is a type of cyanobacteria or blue-green algae. It has been around for 3.5 billion years and was used by the Aztecs in Mexico but they called it ‘tercuitlalt’. These days it's known as spirulina because if you look at it under a microscope it is spiral-shaped (think: fusilli pasta).
Nowadays it grows naturally in a few remote locations across the world. It was in one such location that it was rediscovered and brought into more mainstream attention.
Back in the 60s, scientists discovered that a tribe living around Lake Chad in Africa were particularly healthy in comparison to their neighbours. But why? In that dry and unforgiving landscape there were no obvious signs of things of high nutritional value - and even the lake, if you will forgive me, looked like a bit of a swamp.
However, upon closer observation scientists found that the women of the village would head down to the lake to collect the algae growing on the shoreline. They would take it home, dry it in the sun and then add it to their meals. Interest soon began and people have been replicating these specific conditions found at Lake Chad and growing this health bestowing super substance for themselves ever since.
Laugh yourself fusilli
This is exactly what Georges and Cristina have been doing. The water has to have a high pH (so Monchique water is perfect) and needs to be kept at around 25 degrees, which is why the harvest is done in the hotter months of the year.
However, the secret to making top-quality spirulina is not to dry it too quickly. If it gets too hot it loses a lot of its health benefits. Georges rolled his eyes and told me that he saw a ‘spirulina spaghetti’ in the supermarket the other day and told me it would lose all its goodness once cooked.
So, how should you eat it then?
On their website they suggest recipes for things like spirulina guacamole or hummus, but you can keep it simple and just add it to your smoothie or orange juice in the morning. You only need a spoonful (although there’s no danger of overdosing, your body simply won’t use it).
What makes it so out of this world?
Just about everything, apparently. It's one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. Packed with iron, protein, chlorophyll and just about every vitamin, athletes use it to help reduce fatigue during their superhuman feats and it's even been used by Nasa as a dietary supplement for astronauts during space missions.
But it's good for just about anyone. Its high iron content means it works wonders for people with anaemia. Its anti-cancer, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergies. Anti-everything, basically.
Where can I get some?
They sell their spirulina locally and it is available in the Intermarche in Monchique as well as two health shops in Portimão. They also sell it online and you can order some yourself and find out more details by visiting their website www.spirulina-da-serra.com/.
But watch out! Once word reaches the high seas, I’m sure Popeye will be popping-by in no time.