Eating Irish Moss

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Today's post is by Smithsonian staff writer Abigail Tucker.

On my recent trip to Ireland—where I discovered "real" Irish soda bread—I expected to encounter potatoes aplenty, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Traditional champ (or mashed) potatoes and chips (fries) were offered alongside more cosmopolitan spuds like Dauphinoise potatoes, basil-oil potatoes and potato curry spring rolls. At a folk life museum not far from my great-grandmother’s hometown, we saw a dipper (a stick for poking holes in the soil during potato planting) and a sciob (a basket for draining potatoes.) In the courtyard outside stood the local village’s black metal Famine Pot, used to serve soup to the starving in the 1840s, when the potatoes disappeared.

Yet potatoes were never all that old-time residents ate, I learned from Colm Melly, husband of my grandmother’s cousin Sadie and a resident of County Donegal on the northwest coast. In his memoir, “Brighter Days in Donegal,” about growing up in this rural corner of the country before World War II, he explains that local children were skilled at snaring rabbits, hooking sand eels, scouting for beehives and hazelnuts and gathering cockles. A pet piglet was never long for this world. (Grieved children eventually recovered enough to play football with the animal’s dried bladder, however.)

One local delicacy in particular caught my attention: Irish moss, the seaweed formally known as Chondrus crispus, which yields the extract carrageenan.

“When the salt water receded, we collected tufts of wet moss and spread it out to dry on rocks above the high water mark,” Colm's memoir explains. It produced a medicinal jelly and functioned, he notes, as “an excellent aphrodisiac.” Housewives boiled the "moss" in milk and served it with cream, or as a pudding.

The shopkeeper who sold me a small bag of dried Irish moss promised that I wouldn’t even notice the seaweed taste—if I added enough whiskey, that is. Sadly, Amanda and I did not have whiskey on hand when we tested the milk concoction back here in D.C.

As directed, we rinsed the crunchy purple tufts to eliminate the “small sea shells, stones or crustaceans” that might be lurking within, then soaked them for 20 minutes in cold water. After the greenish fronds softened and unfurled, we dropped the seaweed in a warm pot of 2-percent milk flavored with honey, cinnamon and black pepper.

We let it simmer for a bit longer than the recommended five minutes—neither of us was especially eager to drink it—but while somewhat gluey, the liquid tasted pleasingly sweet, with a maritime tang. It eventually cooled into something more like pudding, which Amanda bravely sampled and declared the equal of any tapioca. (She also had the revolutionary idea of caramelizing the top, a la crème brulee, in a subsequent experiment that may or may not actually take place.)

There are plenty of edgier recipes out there; I saw one for Irish moss lasagna and another for Irish moss salad with apples and mayonnaise. While it smells slightly funky, the seaweed is chock-full of nutrition. For instance, the quarter-pound bag I bought boasted some 3,000 milligrams of potassium (a banana has only about 450 mg).

Still doesn't sound like something you'd be willing to try? Surprise! You probably already have: carageenan extract is commonly used as a gelling agent in dairy products and toothpaste.

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