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In pictures: fishing for sea urchins off the Catalonian coast

In pictures: fishing for sea urchins off the Catalonian coast

Joseph Fox 08 January 2018

Writer Clare Finney and photographer Joseph Fox hop aboard a Catalonian fishing boat to see how sea urchins are collected by divers throughout the winter months.

‘Look around you!’ exclaims Cristian Cao. ‘I love my job. It’s beautiful here.’ Obediently, we follow his gaze, taking in craggy, yet richly verdant shoreline, the dazzling whitewashed houses of Palamós and the Blue Planet-turquoise of the Mediterranean. Cristian is a mariscador: a fisherman for crustaceans, as opposed to a pescador, which catches fish, and we’re standing on the coast of the Costa Brava: home to Salvador Dalí, world-class beaches, a galaxy of Michelin stars and – for the people of Catalonia – a veritable Mecca for what they and many other countries consider a delicacy of the sea.

Sea urchins. Yes, those spiky, bruised purple creatures, which sit in clusters along the seabed and look – well, anything but edible. In Spain they’re known as erizos de mar: hedgehogs of the sea. They’re the Spanish answer to the oyster: too expensive, rarefied or weird by the standards of many Spaniards, ‘but they’re a traditional food here in Palamós,’ says Cristian. ‘It’s not that you don’t have them growing in the rest of Spain. They are there, but people don’t have a taste for them and don’t collect them up. It’s like goose barnacles: people in Europe pay big money for them because there are only a limited amount and they’re hard to access – but in South America [where Cristian is originally from] they have beaches full of them.’

In Palafrugell, Cristian’s picturesque village nearby, you’ll find urchins on every menu. Indeed, so venerated is this intense, briny, bright essence of seawater, it has its own festival: la garoinada, during which Catalans from across the region descend on Palafrugell and its neighboring fishing villages. Where the Italians typically toss them in pasta and the French stir them through soufflés, sauces and omelettes, the Catalans enjoy them as is: served raw either in their shell, or alongside a plate of local blood sausage and green garlic shoots. The festival runs from 13 January to 30 March; the sea urchin season, however, lasts throughout the winter, when sea urchins are at their tastiest. So it was on a bright November morning that we found ourselves accompanying Cristian on his daily expedition under the sea.

At least, he went under the sea. We bobbed in his boat along the surface, watching him work his way along the seabed beneath us. He’s out there every morning at 8am whatever the weather, using weights to help him dive down from four meters, up to ten or twelve. ‘It’s a dangerous job because you’re working near the rocks and the weather can turn in a moment. You also have to be very physically fit to get down to where the urchins are and withstand the cold,’ he tells us. A knife, to remove the urchins, and a net to put them in, is all Cristian needs. ‘They gather in rocky areas where they can grip onto something.’ When his net is full he clips it to a buoy that is anchored to the sea floor so he knows where it is, and can easily bring it up once back in his boat.

‘In this area of Palamós, the urchins are abundant. I collect 1,000 a day and they sell for roughly two for a euro if you sell them to industrial companies – more if you go direct to restaurants.’ He’s lucky: ‘the water in Palamós is clear and the coastline rocky, which means it’s easy to collect them compared to the Basque coast, for example, where the sea is rougher.’ They’ve been likened to truffles for their heady punch of flavour – though they are salty, light, metallic and zingy where the truffle is earthy, heavy, rich and pungent. In fact, the two are occasionally paired together, in a majestic meeting of land and sea.

Preparing an urchin is something of a specialist task – not least because the edible parts are on one side only. The flat underside is cut away, with heavy-duty scissors or a dedicated tool. The dark viscera are cleaned, and the shell dunked in sea water to reveal five stripes of traffic cone orange – the gonads of the urchin, though somewhat confusingly they are better known as the roe. They can be scooped out with a spoon, your tongue, or – better still – a hunk of rustic bread, right there on the beach. In the words of the famous Spanish journalist and writer, Julio Camba, ‘there is no seafood that better synthesises the sea’.

Photography by Joseph Fox. Words by Clare Finney.

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