I have recently been busy processing seaweed to make the traditional Hebridean carrageen pudding, with an aromatic twist. I was very lucky to receive a gift of this red seaweed (Chondrus crispus) freshly picked on South Uist by our very own resident Hebridean professional forager, Fiona Bird. I have been trying to write this post for some 2 weeks, but due to a work trip away and other commitments, I am only just getting round to it now.
I met Fiona a few weeks ago at a soirée on South Uist to celebrate the publication of her new book dedicated to foraging, ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’. Suitably impressed by the diversity of recipes within and some of the delightful nibbles on offer incorporating foraged produce, I ordered a copy which I received last week.
Fiona gave me some wild garlic that evening, foraged in Angus. Unfortunately, despite being pretty much ubiquitous throughout most of the UK, it is more challenging to find on the Uists and I am not inclined to collect it unless it is super-abundant as it is elsewhere. The wild garlic was hence a rare treat which I cooked as a purée with venison. More on that recipe another time.
The Forager’s Kitchen – a book recommendation
If you have an interest in foraging in any way, this book is a must to add to your culinary collection. While it is true that foraging is currently in vogue, in reality this is not a passing fad and it has always been there as an underlying component of our food heritage.
Many high end fine dining restaurants currently feature foraged items within dishes on their menus. This book is therefore a timely reminder that making food with foraged ingredients need not be exclusive, complex or challenging but is an accessible and health-giving addition to the cooking experience.
Fiona’s infectious enthusiasm and knowledge for her subject couldn’t but help but make any reader want to have an excuse to get outdoors and see what bounty is on the doorstep. What better encouragement does one need than free food and a comprehensive compilation of recipes to assist the cook to develop new recipe ideas?
Fiona, as well as being an experienced cook and forager (she was a Masterchef finalist) is also clearly passionate about food and its associations with family. Her personal anecdotes within the book and warm and engaging writing style help to bring the foraging experience alive.
The introduction provides essential and sensible guidance about where, when and how to forage, words of wisdom about misidentification and associated risks and a useful kit list for aspiring foragers.
The book is separated logically into 5 chapters covering flowers and blossom, woodland and hedgerow, fruits and berries, herbs and sea / seashore. No matter where you live, there is a chapter that will capture the habitats around you and help you seek out the free bounty within.
There is more than adequate background information on species and where to find them, how to forage for and use them. There are interesting snippets of folklore associated with many of the species, notably plants. It was lovely to be reminded of the Scottish name for rosehips, ‘itchy coos’. As children, I remember we would tear the hips open and squeeze the seeds down the backs of each other’s school shirts, a prank guaranteed to make anyone itch all afternoon.
The additional ‘Wild Notes’ dispersed throughout the book are a lovely touch, providing the reader with tips to help them develop different ways to expand use of foraged food and broaden their repertoire. Although the cover states there are over 100 recipes, these notes pack in many more recipe ideas.
The layout makes the book very visually appealing and there are many fantastic photos. The outdoor images in particular cannot help but lure the reader outside to explore local woodland, or in my case, seashore.
There are a lot of excellent tips and ideas that I would not have thought of before as well as many ingredients I had not previously considered using e.g. Scotch quail eggs with sea lettuce – delicious idea. There are many intriguing and inventive uses for the natural sweetener, sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), from smoothies and sorbets to tempura.
What I really like about Fiona’s approach is that it is relaxed, unconstrained and encourages culinary creativity. You can take her ideas and run with them to develop recipes and interpret the way nature’s larder can be used in your own way. That way, you will have the freedom to enjoy the outdoors while collecting some of your own food during which time you can contemplate what you might produce, inspired by the environment around you.
For me, foraging adds to what lies at the heart of everything that is great about food and cooking – it is a voyage of discovery, with twists and turns provided by intriguing ingredients that can be combined in infinite combination. Foraging also helps me to get outside my culinary comfort zone and I enjoy nothing more than the revelations it may bring. Hence, this is an appropriate time to introduce my new friend Chondrus crispus.
‘The Forager’s Kitchen’ by Fiona Bird is published by Cico Books and can be ordered online via major internet booksellers.
Fiona also provides regular updates on her foraging activities on Facebook at The Forager’s Kitchen and Twitter (@TheForagersKitc).
I purchased this book and my review in entirely independent.
Carrageen – a very traditional pudding
If it wasn’t for Fiona’s generosity in providing me with freshly foraged carrageen, I’m ashamed to say it might have taken me a lot longer to get round to using this traditional Hebridean ingredient.
I should also thank one of her children who kindly left it at a drop off point i.e. the school in Benbecula. Thankfully the receptionists didn’t take against keeping the well wrapped weed until I got there to collect it!
This attractive red seaweed, Chondrus crispus, called carrageen here in the Hebrides (also known as Irish Moss, pearl or jelly moss) grows on rocky coasts around the UK and Ireland and around the northern Atlantic. It is a small branched purplish-red seaweed that grows up to about 20 cm but its appearance can vary significantly in both colour and size, depending on levels of exposure to waves and turns quite green or yellow, being bleached in strong sunlight.
It grows in a wide range of habitats from exposed shores to sheltered estuaries. It is found lower down on the shore from the mid intertidal to sub tidal zone, so the best time to find it is at very low tide, or preferably on a spring tide. The Marine Life Information Network (MarLIN) is a tremendous resource for information on all aspects of the ecology of Chondrus crispus and other marine flora and fauna around the UK coasts.
Carrageen is part of the Gigartinaceae family of seaweeds, some species of which have been used historically as food additives all over the world for many hundreds of years. They are harvested commercially, notably in the Philippines most recently and have a multitude of applications in the food industry. This is because seaweeds from this family have a high content of unique polysaccharides called carrageenans.
Carrageenans bind strongly to food proteins so are particularly useful as thickening or gelling agents to add viscosity to dairy products such as ice creams and desserts. They are added to processed meats as a stabiliser, help to clarify beer and are a vegetarian or vegan alternative to gelatine. They are also used in shampoos and toothpaste and have many other non-food related applications.
Traditional carrageen pudding
Carrageen pudding is still regularly offered as a local delicacy in the Outer Hebrides and in my experience tends to be served with a very soft jelly-like set, much softer than pannacotta. The dried seaweed is traditionally soaked to soften it, then boiled in milk, strained and sugar is added, perhaps along with other flavours such as vanilla or whisky. I have also been served it with soft fruit added.
I have only ever used dried carrageen, however, being given fresh carrageen by Fiona was an exciting prospect. I wanted to experiment with making a carrageen pudding using the fresh weed, but also to dry the rest for future use, much more the normal practice. A small handful of dried weed (about 10g) is usually adequate to set a pudding with about 600 – 700 ml of milk.
Carrageen can be sun-dried, but with our wet weather, I opted to use the oven. Fortunately, my oven can be set to pretty low temperatures. Here is how I dried the carrageen to preserve it for future use:
- Carefully rinse the carrageen in several changes of cold water to remove the salt (and the array of small creatures like shrimps and snails).
- Spin the seaweed in a salad dryer to remove as much moisture as possible, then rub it with a tea towel.
- Spread it out on a couple of wire racks and put the racks in a very low oven (60C) for about 7 hours.
- Store in an airtight container or plastic bag, ensuring the seaweed is totally desiccated before doing so.
Using fresh carrageen
Following a browse on the web and through a few seaweed-related books, I was quite surprised to find there is not a lot of information out there about using fresh carrageen for cooking. A few tweets to Fiona and a bit more info from her gave me a bit of confidence to experiment with making a pudding using the fresh weed. I knew I would need a much larger amount when using fresh than dried to get a set.
I decided a 2 : 3 ratio of fresh weed to milk and added 100 ml of double cream to the strained mixture at the end, i.e. a 1 : 2 carrageen to milk/cream ratio for the finished pudding, along with flavourings and colour. I wrapped the seaweed in muslin and floated the bag in the milk as it warmed. This amount serves 4.
I wanted to add some of my favourite aromatic flavours: rose water and cardamom to the pudding as I have only experienced traditional flavourings. I am delighted to say the pudding set was quite firm, more akin to pannacotta and the texture smooth. The rose water and cardamom worked very well with the silky textured pudding.
200g fresh carrageen, washed (or 10g dried)
300ml whole milk
100ml double cream
1/2 tsp rose water
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
40g caster sugar
a handful of brambles or other soft fruit
a few drops of natural red food dye
a few chopped toasted almonds
- Put the milk in a pan and add the muslin wrapped seaweed bag to the pan.
- Slowly bring to the boil and allow to simmer over a low heat for 30 minutes.
- Press down on the muslin bag frequently with a potato masher or similar to extrude as much of the carrageenan thickener from the seaweed as possible.
- Pour the mixture through a sieve, into another pan, again, squeezing muslin to extract as much carrageenan as possible.
- Add the double cream and sugar, heat gently until the sugar has dissolved.
- Remove from the heat and allow to cool a bit before adding the cardamom, rose water and red dye.
- Pour into ramekins and allow to cool slightly before putting in the fridge to set.
I topped the puddings with some defrosted brambles I picked last autumn but I think they did nothing to enhance the pudding’s flavour and only served to confuse the palate, so would leave off the unnecessary garnish next time – I can put my precious few remaining stocks to better use. Similarly, the rose petals look pretty, but the aesthetics outweigh their enhancement of the dish – they are a bit dry and papery! I topped with almonds, just as a change from my usual pistachio choice with this flavour combination, but pistachios would work even better.
Mission accomplished, I am now going to watch the second in the BBC wildlife series ‘Hebrides: Islands on the Edge’. I’m disappointed to report this great series is only being broadcast in Scotland but hope some of you can pick it up on iPlayer or other web resources. It really is magnificent.