On the Ampordan coast in northern Catalonia , sea urchins are a delicacy. The first time I ate them was some years ago in Figueres on a cold, crisp Saturday morning in January. My flatmate's brother had been out snorkelling and had collected a bucketful. Neus took out a chopping knife, whapped one in two (1), and presented me with the two halves and a piece of bread. With the bread- lubricated with olive oil or butter, you had to scoop out the five red fleshy tongues - actually the animal's gonads. You can also use a spoon. They tasted of the sea. They tasted wholly delicious. We washed them down with cold beer, though they say they go best with an Ampordan rosé.
Paracentrotus lividus (2) goes by many names in Catalonia . In Spanish its erizo de mar (sea hedgehog - an old meaning in English of urchin is the same). The Catalans also call the zoological species an eriço but the animal to be scoured out and eaten is a garota, or variations on the theme. In the villages along the coast, sea urchin eating reveries are held every year known as orisades, garoinades or garotades, organised originally by fishermen, hence the simplicity in their preparation. Outside the Ampordan (Empordà (3) in Catalan) there is scant tradition in the Spanish Mediterranean, however as Barcelona's middle class hordes began to buy up huge swathes of one of the most beautiful corners of Spain (4), they muscled in on the custom, and it is now relatively easy - at a price- to get hold of a few urchins in La Boqueria in Barcelona. Garotes feature strongly and strangely on the winter menus of the trendiest Catalan restaurants these days, but as I can't afford to eat at such places I won't bore you with the details (5). Gastronomes here wax lyrical on their delights. Julio Cambó said 'there is no seafood that better synthesises the sea so perfectly as the urchin' and . 'an extract of the sea, a breath of a storm, an essence of tempests". They're also eaten in Asturias where I believe they use them to make a fine omelette, and in Cadiz . Urchin caviar is becoming increasingly popular. Basque chefs are also getting on the act. Typically impenetrably , the Basques call them itsas triku arrunta.
The best and only time to harvest sea urchins is during winter. One reason given is that the sea level of the almost-tideless Mediterranean is lower here at this time of year so it is easier to get at the urchins. High pressure over the eastern Mediterranean in winter pushes down on the water, depressing it by as much as 30 cm (the phenomenon is known as the minves de gener in Catalan and is also responsible for the frequent winter flooding of Venice when there is a potent anti-cyclone in the southern Adriatic ). Climatically interesting it may be, but the theory is patently ridiculous- an invention of a tideless people- 30cm is nothing to a snorkeller. As with most seafood, they're just tastier at this time of the year.
Dalí, that Empordà oddball and part-time Francoist, had a thing for sea urchins, and regularly held urchin eating sessions outside his Port Lligat hideaway. He even designed a handbag.
(1) They should be washed if possible in sea water. Traditionally they are eaten raw and still inside their bodies, like oysters.
(2) Several other species are also edible. However, the vast majority of the 750 odd sea urchins species are unfit for human consumption.
(3) From the 3rd century BC Greek town of Empurias from empurium for market
(4) Local Ampordanians call Barcelonans pixapins (pine-pissers) from their habit of getting out of the car on journeys through the country to have a piss by behind a tree, and que macos (how-pretties) from their bent for saying everything is so pretty and quaint.- which is what I've just done...
(5) Ferran Adrià serves up a sea-urchin ravioli at his El Bulli restaurant.
Note: Sea urchins have no brain.
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