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.
I'm standing on a rock at low tide, layers of organic matter below my feet, formed over billions of years. Beyond me is the great ocean herself, perhaps where we all came from and marking a time before our migration, along with (now) terrestrial plants, onto land.
Around me swells the seawater, not so different from the water contained in each of my body's cells. Somehow my sense of time, body and what I am made of is changing; I feel both young and old, connected and in wonder at my ancestry of rock, sea water and seaweeds.
Yes seaweeds, also so much older than this human form of yours and mine. Red seaweeds (that's another discussion of what constitutes a red seaweed, which I'm happy to have, another time) are thought to be the oldest of them all. Somewhere between 1.6 and 2 billion years old. Their structure, reproduction and variety are fascinating, though what interests me the most is their flavour.
And on the topic of seaweed flavour, I have an unanswered question.
Actually I have many, and a sketchbook of seaweed notes still to decipher. Though for now, I have one, little question:
How come the Red Seaweeds have the most Interesting, Multi-layered and Tantalizing Flavour?
(Baked Oysters, Pepper Dulse Seaweed and Lemon Butter - from my Seaweed Foraging Book)
I could speculate that the answer is because of red seaweed's structure, their both basic and complex form, and a form that comes with age. Though when I asked some of the UK’s best seaweed experts (people who have taught me and whom I deeply respect) they just shrugged their shoulders and answered ‘I don’t know’.
Despite their age and importance there is still so much we don’t know about seaweeds, and that in some ways, is part of their wonder. An unknown, underwater world that, here in the British Isles, reveals itself just twice a day to us.
I love standing by the water’s edge, on the boundary of this unknown world, there is still so much to learn and already so much to share.
On the theme of red seaweeds (there are also hundreds of species of green and brown ones to enjoy), their complex flavour means they are both compatible with a wide range of foods from quiche to lemony dressings, and also bring out ‘umami’, a flavour which heightens all other flavours. Simple things like bread, rice and potatoes become something inspired with a little bit of seaweed added.
Taste, colour, flavour and texture all make up the components of food that is an enjoyable part of our human experience, and that's without mentioning the vast nutritional benefits of seaweeds. Of course, the amounts you use and the combinations you create all constitute how enjoyable seaweeds are, and those details are important.
Here's more information on seaweed foraging courses and here's a link to the calendar dates for seaweed foraging courses to puruse, or book. Each beach has a different range of seaweeds and each season offers something different too.