Carragheen is a common and widely foraged seaweed in Gaelic Scotland, with a name that tells the forager where it can be found.
Cairgein (also given as Carraigean) is a special seaweed in a Scottish Gaelic context as it is still foraged in a traditional manner, being generally used to make a pudding or jelly. The name derives from carraig ‘rock’ – the very substrate on which the small marine alga grows – although the modern Scottish Gaelic name might have been influenced by the English form carragheen which derives ultimately from the Irish Gaelic carraigín ‘small rock’ (it is also referred to in English as ‘Irish Moss’). Despite its popularity as a foraged food, the current author has not located a reference to it in the Gaelic landscape. Sgeir a’ Charraigein on the west coast of Mull, opposite the island of Ulva, at first appearance looks like ‘the skerry of the carragheen’ (and it is likely the species grows there) but an early Ordnance Survey map shows that the skerry is in fact named for a nearby sea-pinnacle called An Carraigean. It is ‘the skerry of the small rock’!
It is only at the lowest tides that enough carragheen is revealed to allow its collection in quantity. It is an attractive, diminutive weed, reaching around 15cm in length but usually smaller. It is dichotomously branched with squarish tips to the fronds, it bears no air bladders, and it varies in colour from bright green to dark purplish-brown, depending on depth and habitat. Sometimes found growing on relatively bare rock, it can also be somewhat hidden within beds of larger alga such as kelps. As with other fixed marine algae, it is most sustainably harvested by being cut with scissors rather than by detaching the entire plant from its substrate. Be gentle with seaweeds!
The Gaelic name cairgein actually includes two species – carragheen (Chondrus crispus) and false carragheen (Mastocarpus stellatus), the latter having pointed ends to its fronds and a slightly warty texture, but this need not bother the forager, as both species can be used in the same way.
The traditional way of dealing with carragheen in Gaelic Scotland is to lay the freshly-cut plants out in the sun and allow it to bleach (the species is best collected in the spring or early summer when its Vitamin A content is at its maximum). It is recommended that it be rained upon three times (the Scottish weather usually obliges!) and it is said that the best surface to dry it on is a clover lawn, as the plant will absorb sweetness from the clover flowers, although it is not clear if this has ever been scientifically validated!
The bleached, dried carragheen is then stored in a dry, dark place in a hessian sack and can be used in the winter months. Some people even store it for a couple of years before using it. The dried seaweed is boiled and sieved to produce a relatively flavourless, white or light grey gelatinous pudding, rather like a blancmange, which is easily digested and was traditionally used in the Gàidhealtachd (and beyond) as a recuperative food for people suffering from stomach complaints. The flavour comes from the additives which are only restricted by the cook’s imagination – cinnamon and nutmeg are commonly used ingredients – and various sweet sauces are often drizzled over the pudding, topped with fresh fruit (raspberries are favoured if they are in season). What emerges is a foodstuff with no noticeable maritime flavour.
Perhaps surprisingly for such a seemingly innocuous and cryptic alga, carragheen has not been without its controversy. The extract, known as carrageenan, which is used as a thickener and gelling agent in products such as ice cream, cottage cheese and various desserts – as well as in infant formula – has been promoted as a vegan-friendly alternative to gelatin, which originates in animals. However, some scientists have suggested that carrageenan is inflammatory and even toxic within the digestive tract, although their findings have been rejected by other scientists and by regulatory agencies in a number of countries.
Cairgein has an alternative and rather poetic Gaelic name – màthair an duilisg ‘the mother of the dulse’ as it was seen as being the precursor to a slightly larger red seaweed which grows in similar locations and is still widely used in Scotland – dulse. In fact, this is the only name recorded for the species in the Gairloch area of Wester Ross by Roy Wentworth who compiled a comprehensive dictionary of the local dialect in the modern era. While Eriskay priest Father Allan McDonald (Maighstir Ailein) recorded only carraigean as a Gaelic form, he described the species as ‘a short sea-weed like dilse growing on same rocks as dilse’.
Dulse (or ‘dilse’ if you prefer) is another delicious seaweed beloved of the Gaels. But, for this blogger – as with the dried, bleached carragheen sitting in its hessian sack – the delicious dulse will have to wait for another occasion to be revealed!
This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.