I found myself trotting about the Trader Joe's grocery store in Portland recently. Have you ever seen a hive of honeybees begin to swarm? The individual bees gradually increase the pitch and volume of their humming. Suddenly a mass will whirl out of the hive and hover like a noisy cloud above it. Then, as if with one mind, they will rush off into the air in a great dense mass and make their way to their new roost. That was Trader Joe's on a Sunday afternoon.

It was cheerful chaos, nonetheless. I admire a store whose policy is to give away free samples and whose cashiers unpack your cart for you. Their coffee is reasonably priced and the wine, well, everyone knows about Trader Joe's amazing prices on wine. But I am a salt junky. I may fight the urge but inevitably I will end up in the aisle of pretzels, crackers, and all things salty. This day, though, I decided to make my taste buds happy with something vaguely good for me. Organic pretzel nuggets dipped in sesame seeds? No. Veggie crisps dusted in sea salt? Nah. Pita chips laminated with poppy seeds and salt? Nope. I was good; I chose Trader Joe's roasted seaweed snack, for a whopping 99 cents.

What can I say? I like most seaweeds or, as they are now called in culinary circles, sea vegetables. It's the saltiness, of course, but also the vitamins, minerals, fiber and even the nice touch of protein they contain. Trader Joe's roasted seaweed snack is made of dried nori from Korea that is roasted with a bit of sesame and canola oil and sea salt, then cut into neat little strips, which simply melt in your mouth. The four-ounce package I purchased adds up to a grand 100 calories. The seaweed snack is so popular that it even has its own Facebook page.

The popularity of seaweed among diners is beginning to be noticed in Maine. Companies such as FMC in Rockland have long processed the state's many marine algaes for everything from carageenan (used in food and pharmaceutical products) to animal supplements and fertilizers. This past August, the University of Maine Sea Grant program held a seaweed aquaculture workshop that drew an overflow audience.
That's right - seaweed aquaculture. The new move in the world of seaweed is not wild harvesting, as has been done for decades by companies like Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. Enterprising business people are looking at cultivating choice seaweeds in small farms, drawing on Maine's clean water and high tides to keep their fledgling algae well fed.

Asian countries are way ahead of Maine in this field, as is Chile in South America. China, Korea and Japan have cultivated seaweed for centuries in order to meet the great demand for seaweed products by consumers. Here in Maine a new company called Ocean Approved has dipped its toes, so to speak, into the market as well.

The company has a lease to grow sugar kelp (Laminaria saccharina) in the waters off Little Chebeague Island in Casco Bay, the first such lease in the United States. The kelp seedlings are grown out on lines set in the water from a floating raft. Kelp grows substantially during the winter months, from about November to May, and, according to company president Tollef Olsen, can grow up to an inch per day.

Billing kelp as the "virtuous vegetable," Ocean Approved has created a truly unusual product for the home cook: kelp noodles. The kelp noodles are created from frozen, not dried, sugar kelp, and thus retain a vibrant green color. The company also produces a kelp slaw, made from the horsetail kelp (Laminaria digitata) and a seaweed salad made of Alaria esculenta, also known as winged kelp. These products are remarkably high in calcium, iron and even vitamin A.

I have not tried any of Ocean Approved's products and, given that this week is dedicated to the pursuit of turkey and all the fixings, I probably will not any time soon. But I am a lady in love with the sea (and salt) and I suspect that as Ocean Approved and other innovative Maine companies start bringing seaweed products to the market, they will inevitably find their way to my table.