Irish Moss harvesting in PEI, Canada
compliments of North Atlantic Organics
Although Irish Moss has been used as mattress stuffing, cattle feed, and in printing, it was most famously used as poverty food by the Irish in the 19th century, especially during the Irish Potato Famine of 1846-1848. This may explain why food that was part of Irish traditions for so long was subsequently ignored. A poverty food is any inexpensive or readily available food used to nourish people in times of extreme poverty or starvation; quite often, the food is thereafter strongly associated with the hardship under which it was eaten, and is therefore socially downplayed or rejected as a food source in times of relative plenty.
Poverty foods need not be nutritionally deficient, or unsavoury. Having been driven to consume them in large amounts and for long periods of time, however, people often remain averse to them for a long time even if they might otherwise constitute a healthy part of a more comprehensive diet. This reaction is primarily social and can change over time, as it is now, where seaweed is enjoying a strong revival everywhere, especially in Ireland.
According to ancient Irish folklore, Irish Moss was carried on trips for protection and safety and placed beneath rugs to increase luck and to ensure a steady flow of money into the house or pockets of the person. Irish Moss was also used widely in the treatment of tuberculosis and pneumonia.
In Ireland and parts of Scotland, it is boiled in milk and strained, before sugar and other flavourings such as vanilla, cinnamon, brandy or whiskey are added. The end-product is a kind of jelly similar to panna cotta. In Venezuela it has been used for generations as a home remedy for sore throat and chest congestion, boiled in milk and served with honey before bed.
The Irish Moss industry provides a unique way of life for those involved with the harvest on Prince Edward Island (Canada). The industry began with a small number of fishermen in the 1930s and quickly grew into a multimillion-dollar industry in just a few decades. This was largely due to the demand for the carrageenan that was extracted from the harvested moss. In its heyday, entire communities were involved in the collection of the saltwater plant, Irish moss along the shores of PEI. Today, the industry is still alive but to a lesser extent and primarily only in the western part of the province. The methods of harvesting using horse-drawn rakes to gather the windswept moss were developed on PEI and can be seen to this day along the west coast. Most of the harvesting is now done by boat but there are still those who gather moss along the shoreline after a storm.
Unfortunately, Irish Moss is used as a source of industrial carrageen for various industries, where it is used as a thickener and stabilizer. To a lesser extend it is used for fining beer or wine as a clarifying agent. A small amount is boiled with the wort, attracting proteins and other solids, which is then removed from the mixture after cooling.