When I think of foods foraged in Prince Edward Island, it is fiddleheads, mushrooms and wild berries that most often come to mind.
However, there are wild foods to be found along the shorelines as well.
I spent last Saturday afternoon learning about a food resource that is available to anyone who can get to the shore at the right time: seaweed. Irene Novaczek led the nutrition and cooking segment of a seaplant workshop that took place at the Farm Centre in Charlottetown.
Seaplant is another name for what most of us call seaweeds. Although our culture relies very little on seaplants for food, a number of people attending the workshop had tried eating seaplants in one form or another: sushi wrapped in nori; Asian soup stock flavoured with kelp; blanc mange pudding thickened with Irish moss.
There are three types of seaplants, based on colour — brown, red and green — and all of them are found along the shorelines of P.E.I. Of the approximately 450 different species growing around our province, about 100 are of culinary or medicinal use.
Islanders have gathered seaplants since the 1920s, and in the mid-20th century, Miminegash, P.E.I., was the Irish moss capital of the world. It was interesting to see slides showing Irish moss spread along the roadsides in the 1970s, drying before being baled for export.
Irish moss (chondrus crispus), as the name implies, has been used by the Celtic people of the British Isles. In fact, Novaczek highly recommended a cookbook, “Irish Seaweed Kitchen: the comprehensive guide to healthy everyday cooking with seaweeds,” by Irish physician and author Prannie Rhatigan (www.prannie.com).
During the course of the workshop, participants prepared and served — with direction from the workshop leader — a vegetable stew flavoured with seaplants and herbs, biscuits flavoured and embellished with seaweed flakes, a crisp snack of buttered seaweed and blanc mange pudding made with Irish moss.
A source of carageenan, which creates a powerful gel, Irish moss was perhaps recognized (I am speculating!) for its utility in making seaweed pie or blanc mange pudding before it was used in industrial applications such as making ice cream.
You can gather your own Irish moss, dry it and store it for later use. Classified as a medium-sized red seaweed, the size, shape and even the colour of Irish moss can vary from bright green to deep purple.
We learned some useful rules for collecting any seaplants during the workshop. Keep your eyes open, and observe where seaplants tend to wash up on the shore. Look for a clean, open site (unless you are collecting gracilaria, which is found in warm bays.) The best time to gather seaplants along the shoreline is at the early low tide on a sunny day right after a storm in spring or late summer/fall, because a storm will loosen the plants from the rocks that they are attached to under the water, permitting then to wash in with the tide.
For safety, go with a friend, watch out for slippery rocks and big waves and don’t become so distracted looking for seaweed that you forget to take care of yourself.
Practise good stewardship by gathering only the best of the seaplants and leaving the rest where you find them. Pack what you collect in a mesh bag, and wash off snails and sand in seawater before taking it home.
When you get the plants home, wash them quickly in fresh water, if they need it, and then spin them dry.
Spread them immediately on clean window screens to dry or hang kelp over a clothesline to dry. Alternately, use a food dehydrator. Protect drying seaplants from birds and other animals, and turn from time to time, picking off any impurities.
Rinse Irish moss in clear water and dry in sunlight, again, if you wish to bleach it for making blanc mange. Repeat as necessary until it is pale pink to white in colour.
There are several recipes and methods to make a pie filling using Irish moss. With thanks to Goldie Gillis for sharing, here is a recipe that I used several years ago in a community school class featuring Island foods.
Recipe provided by Goldie Gillis, Point Prim, P.E.I.
Blanc Mange Filling:
175 mL (3/4 cup) dried Irish moss
1 L (4 cups) milk
1 mL (1/4 tsp) salt
7 mL (1 1/2 tsp) vanilla extract
75 mL (1/3 cup) sugar or honey
300 mL (1 1/4 cups) graham crumbs
50 mL (1/4 cup) brown sugar
75 mL (1/3 cup) soft butter
To prepare crumb crust, mix together graham crumbs, brown sugar and butter, press into a pie plate, and bake at 180°C (350°F) for 10 minutes.
To make blanc mange filling:
Soak Irish moss for 15 minutes in enough water to cover. Drain.
Add the Irish moss to the milk, and cook in the top of a double boiler for 30 minutes. The milk mixture will appear to thicken slightly at this point. Do not, however, overcook the mixture, as the blanc mange pudding will become too stiff.
Add salt and vanilla extract. Press through a sieve to remove the larger pieces of Irish moss. Stir in sugar.
Pour into the cooked crumb crust and chill before serving.
Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.