The Sea Urchin
Sea urchin tasting
Let's set sail to discover the temperamental star of the local sea urchin festivals!
According to Marcel Pagnol, "if we only judged things by appearances, nobody would ever have wanted to eat a sea urchin". They're not easy to fish or select and it's impossible to tell whether the spikes hide weeny or good-sized tongues. What's more, nobody in the Mediterranean has ever managed to breed them…
Here in Provence, we celebrate local produce with fervour. To give a pretty name to these friendly food festivals, all you need to do is add the suffix 'ades' to the gourmet goodie in question! On the Côte Bleue coast (Carry-le-Rouet, Fos-sur-Mer, Sausset-les-Pins, etc.), the 'Oursinades' (sea urchin festivals) take place in January and February and are not to be confused with the 'Mouclades' (mussel festivals) in Camargue or 'Sardinades' (sardine festivals) in Martigues and Port de Bouc in June and July, while Marseille's mega 'Sardinade' is held in September. And although these giant sardine barbecues are welcome as long as the little blue fish remains abundant, the "Oursinades" could pose a future threat to the sea urchin, already subject to strict fishing regulations.
'Sardinades' in Provence
There's a reason for this: the sea urchin is badly raised! In fact, it's not raised at all – it's a genuine wild thing and so far nobody in the Mediterranean has ever managed to make it reproduce or raise it in farm conditions. So you have to 'pick' it from the rocks when fishing is authorized (from November to April) and respect the quotas per person and per day to preserve the species. What's more, your urchins have to be of a minimum size. Yes, they really play hard to get!
This hard-earned spiny trophy is best served simply in its birthday suit, although the most famous recipe (also called an 'oursinade'), involves making a large quantity of them into a sauce with cream and egg, served with poached fish. If you don't fancy seeing your day's catch disappear into a stock, opt for the ultra-simple option: a piece of bread topped with a knob of butter and a sea urchin tongue and voilà! A guaranteed dive into the Med! Or you could serve it in the shell with a quail's egg and some soldiers – bake it for 5 minutes maximum so you don't spoil the delicate flavour of the 'gonads'.
«Gonads»' did you say?
Let's have a short vocabulary lesson: we call them tongues but the edible parts are in fact the gonads: these five little orange pockets are actually the sea urchin's reproductive organs and nobody can guess their size before opening the urchin. In other words, the question is "how can you know if a sea urchin has good-sized tongues?" Our expert fishermen will tell you they know in advance, depending on where the sea urchins are located, the prevailing currents and how they are clinging to the rock. But for us amateurs, the best advice is to "look at the spikes". If they're damp, shiny and perky, the seller will tell you you've got a good sea urchin in hand, even if they'll never be able to guarantee the size of the tongues.
«If we only judged things by appearances, nobody would ever have wanted to eat a sea urchin» Marcel Pagnol
Careful not to walk inconveniently on a sea urchin!
By Anne Garabédian, Journalist - Food
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