I have a utter soft spot for the seaweed known as Irish Moss. When cooked, this seaweed has a fabulous texture, setting ability and taste that makes me melt inside. It's perfect for setting panna cottas, vegan pates, mousse and for thickening soups. I imagine it's the mixture of the goodness I'm digesting from this plant combined with a personal preference for its softening qualities that I enjoy.
(Image above: Chocolate panna cotta set with Irish moss, recipe by Rachel Lambert)
Though Irish Moss - also known as Carrageen, Carragheen or Carrageen Moss - is a term that is sometimes used to describe a couple of different seaweed species, sometimes more. I do it myself when I teach my seaweed foraging courses, I group together the species Chondrus crispus and Mastocarpus stellatus in order to help people to find 'the seaweed(s) that sets panna cottas'. It also helps people recognise the similarities (as well as differences) between these seaweeds. It can seem a little complicated, though basically I'm attempting to simplify things!
Both Chondrus crispus and Mastocarpus stellatus have natural setting and thickening qualities when cooked. Best picked in Spring, it could be that picking these weeds at different times of year effects its abilities to set things, though that's a different story, for another time.
Which seaweed is the best one for setting panna cotta?
According to Annie Dawe of Ballyandreen Bay in Ireland who apparently picked and sold the very best carrageen in times gone by, the superior variety is Chondrus crispus and the slightly inferior one: Mastocarpus stellatus.* Now as much as I respect old knowledge and traditions I decided I wanted to find out for myself. After all, the 'best' could be referring to numerous excellent qualities of either of these seaweeds (more on that another time, or do look at my Carrageen Cough Syrup recipe).
So, last Spring for a seaweed foraging course I made two identical chocolate panna cottas, one was set with Chondrus crispus and the other with Mastocarpus stellatus. I used exactly the same amount of carrageen in both, though perhaps one was a little more chocolaty!
(Left: Mastocarpus stellatata. Right: Chondrus crispus)
On my seaweed courses I teach how to identify both of these seaweeds and also encourage people not to worry about it as both set panna cottas and other such delights. Though which one creates a better set?
Well, with a group of about a dozen course participants, I passed around the panna cottas in turn, introducing each one separately according to the seaweed I had used. Both panna cottas were polished off and the decision was unanimous! There was some preference for one texture over the other as each did have a very slightly different set texture (and yes I had mistakenly made one more chocolaty!), though we agreed that both set perfectly.
So there you have it, the simplest, most rewarding answer: Chondrus crispus and Mastocarpus stellatus both set panna cottas perfectly. I have a lovely Carrageen and White Chocolate Panna Cotta recipe in my Seaweed Foraging Book and you can find carrageen in Health Food stores, at online seaweed suppliers, or you could pick your own and I can show you how to harvest sustainably, where to find and how to identify either of these seaweeds on one of my seaweed courses.
(White Chocolate Panna Cotta from Rachel Lambert's book: Wild Food Foraging in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly), you can buy the book here.
*The story of Annie Dawe's best carrageen came from Prannie Rhatigan's book: Irish Seaweed Kitchen, a book full of recipes, stories and facts about some of our best edible seaweeds.