When my hunter-gatherer mood comes upon me and the ground is frozen and the few green leaves in sight are not appetizing, I head to the shore. The shore never fails. At low tide there are mussels and clams, but at any tide Chrondus crispus, a red algae commonly called Irish moss, can be collected.
Loaded with nutrients and minerals, vitamins A,B,C,D,E and K, (are there any others?) Irish moss got its name during the potato famine in Ireland in the 1800s, when it was eaten for survival. It is also called carrageen moss because of its high carrageen content. It is the carrageen that acts as a thickener and emulsifier, and turns milk and sweeteners into a creamy dessert known as blancmange. That is a word with a long history. It literally means white food, and in the Middle Ages it referred to savory stews with chicken, milk and rice, all white. That sounds delicious, too, but in Maine blancmange is the name for our flan-like seaweed thickened pudding.
Irish immigrants brought their knowledge of this pudding, and Chrondus crispus, to North America. On Prince Edward Island harvesting Irish moss became a multi-million dollar business. The industry has collapsed, but to this day along the west coast one can see the horse-drawn rakes used to gather the moss. In the 1940’s a company called Krim Ko in Chicago used it to make their chocolate milk smooth and creamy. In Jamaica, you can buy Irish moss drinks at bars and roadside stands. Since its introduction there it has become a popular drink that’s notorious for those seeking “vigor.” It reminds me of eggnog. It is very thick, filling, and makes me want a nap more than a vigorous activity.
A friend and I collected and gave dried Chrondus crispus as gifts one year. Our one opportunity to collect together was predawn, with single digit temperatures and a lashing wind. We went home to dry the Chrondus, and ourselves, and kitchen-tested recipes with numb fingers and weather-reddened cheeks. Since then we both choose calm days for gathering. She made batch after batch of blancmange, while I put together the recipe cards and packaging, and together we painted and decoupaged boxes to hold the cards and bags of marine algae.
Tips for harvesting
There is no need to wade in and clip Chrondus crispus where it grows below the low tide mark, leave any attached Irish moss to continue to grow. Loose pieces can be found in the wrack line, particularly after a storm. These are easy to collect and do not impact the growing algae. Irish moss is a red algae, and can be maroon, almost black, green or even light cream depending on the amount of sunlight it has been exposed to. The light-bleached pieces are easier to spot, but the variety of reds and purples make a beautiful color palette. Look for pieces that are free from sand-colored bryozoans, they can add an unwelcome crunch to your pudding. As always, be sure you have permission before collecting, and only take what you need. I immerse it in water and rinse several times to loosen and remove any clinging sand. I also pick through it to be sure there are no unwanted bits of grass, shell or rockweed. To dry, spread out on a towel on your counter and turn once or twice. It dries fairly quickly, but can also be put in a low-heated oven on a cookie sheet for half an hour. Store in air-tight containers when bone dry.
Vigor, a sweet dessert, essential minerals, antioxidants, and an excuse to roam the wrack line are more than enough reasons to mix up a batch of Blancmange, but there is more. According to Irish proverbs, if you tuck some sea moss in your pocket you will have safe travels, and if you place a bit beneath a rug it will bring luck and money into your home.
Safe travels and good fortune as you wander the wrack line.
Kitchen-tested recipe for Blancmange
Crumble about two tablespoons of Chrondus crispus very fine and put it in a double boiler with the milk and cream. Heat very slowly, stirring occasionally for 20-25 minutes. Do not let the milk boil.
Strain the mixture into a bowl, scraping the moss to get as much gelatin as possible through the strainer. Add the vanilla and syrup. Whisk well and pour into ramekins. Chill at least 6 hours. Serve plain or with fruit. It will hold its shape if you unmold it.
You can play around with this recipe, adding lemon peel to the milk while it’s heating, cinnamon, or whatever other ﬂavors take your fancy. One variation is to make chocolate pudding: melt 1 oz. of baking chocolate with 1/3 cup of sugar and whisk it in with the strained milk mixture.
Note: Chrondus crispus has many commecial uses. Carrageenan is chemically extracted from it and used as a thickener and emulsifier in almond milk, toothpaste, ice cream, and beauty products. Many people have allergic reactions to commercially produced carrgeenan.