Ever seen “carrageenan” at the end of an incomprehensible list of ingredients on the back of your ice cream tub (or your toothpaste tube, too)?
Probably you didn’t know that this mystery ingredient comes from one of several species of seaweed, carrageen (Chondrus crispus).
Know as carrageen “moss”, but actually a seaweed, is one of Ireland’s more unusual natural resources, and there are any number of ways to spell its common name: carrageen, carrageenan, carragheen and carragheenan, take your pick. But, in any case, they’re all derived from the Irish word carraigín, which means literally “moss of the rocks” from Gaelic (though some think that the -án ending is actually an Irish diminutive, which changes the word’s meaning to “little rock” and connects it to a relatively common Irish place name).
I don’t know who first noticed that this seaweed produces a thick jellylike substance that will jell up and set whatever liquid it’s introduced to. This curious discovery may go back to Bronze Age times but for many, many years, small seaside communities in Ireland eked out their income by gathering the carrageen seaweed from the rocks near their homes, drying and bleaching it usually in the sun (nowadays the drying is handled in commercial ovens) and then selling it on as a setting agent, cheaper than gelatine and with its own unique, delicate flavor of the sea.
Traditionally foraged from the coast, the seaweed is also used as a gelling agent in a sweet, smooth local pudding. Flavored with vanilla, citrus, or chocolate, carrageen pudding is prized for its light texture and briny, almost spicy flavor. On the south and west coasts of Ireland, the sea washes this webbed seaweed to shore. Bright maroon, pale green, reddish-black, or sandy tan, it has thick, juicy tendrils that extrude a jelly-like substance when soaked in water. Traditional Irish cooks collect it from the coast, then dry it in the sun and store it in a jute bag, where it can keep for more than a year.
To prepare the pudding, chefs simmer the carrageen with milk and vanilla until the moss starts extruding a thick jelly, then they strain the mixture onto a beaten egg yolk to make a sort of custard. This base is combined with beaten egg whites and then cooled. When set, the curious dessert has a light, creamy bottom and a foamy, bubbled top.
Irish people prize carrageen pudding for its unique taste, but also for ostensible health qualities and, interestingly, some Irish mothers wean their children using milk thickened with carrageen moss.
Today carrageen has made its way from Ireland all over the world. It turns up also in cough medicines and numerous other preparations for sore throats and troubled chests, as well as in cosmetics and all kinds of food. Numerous dairy products in North America, especially yogurts and sour creams, now routinely contain carrageen as a thickener.
Images from web – Google Research