SEA URCHINS: A REVELATION
What is it that makes one fall in love with the south of France? Is it the lifestyle, climate, food, wine…? For me it was all of the above – plus my future husband, a young medical student. Thirty years ago, rather than return home to Canada after a one-year work assignment, I readily exchanged the arctic climate of Quebec for endless days of sunshine. My husband and I spent our summers in his hometown of Ajaccio on the island of Corsica. I have many happy memories of those leisurely days spent on the beach, swimming, sunbathing and also discovering many culinary gems of this Mediterranean island. However, it wasn’t until much later that I learned to appreciate the most highly prized of all: the sea urchin.
In Corsica, where this bounty from the sea is almost revered, summer beach parties which centred around the thorny creatures are a popular tradition. The young men dive for the urchins and return to the beach bearing sacks full of ‘treasure’. Beach towels are spread out, bottles of wine, opened – and the sea urchins are slit and eaten on the spot. Fresh from Canada, I was quite taken aback by the “primitive” nature of this event. As far as I was concerned, sea urchins were something to be cursed, especially if one had the bad luck to step on one! But to eat them raw and live? It was simply out of the question!
I graciously refused the kind offers to join the feast but have since made up for lost time!
Originally called ‘sea hedgehog’ for obvious reasons, the sea urchin has been a much maligned creature along with its cousins like the sea cucumber, sea star and sand dollar. The very name suggests ragged, scavenging youngsters out of the pages of Charles Dickens. (And indeed the species – echinoidea – does scavenge the ocean floor.) In 19th century Newfoundland they were disdainfully referred to as ‘whore’s eggs’, yet they were considered delicacies in the days of Pompeii. The philosopher Aristotle studied them long and hard. In his book The History of Animals he described their ‘mouth’ (center) as a horn lantern, known as ‘Aristotle’s Lantern“. It is capable of drilling through rocks!
The “revelation” for me came around five years ago when a friend in the colourful Mediterranean port of Sète, which is now my home, invited me to a New Year’s Eve party. As the guests sipped aperitifs, a huge seafood platter was presented and we were asked to serve ourselves. I must admit I don’t know if it was the excitement of the New Year or a little too much bubbly, but I spontaneously took hold of a sea urchin, scooped out the small bright orange sections – and cautiously took a bite.
Never could I have imagined such a delicious and delicate sweetness. I felt like a princess (the word primitive was instantly erased from my vocabulary) as I explored the shell in search of a small bite of this newly discovered treasure. It took me back to the beach parties and the young men offering unlimited quantities of sea urchins. It made me realize how much I had missed and how silly I had been to refuse to taste this fabulous sea food.
A FESTIVAL TO CELEBRATE THE SEA URCHIN
The south of France offers a variety of festivals, mainly during the summer, which draw hoards of visitors and tourists to the Mediterranean coast.
One of my favorites is the Sea Urchin Festival in March , or ‘oursinade’ which is unique to the town of Sete. Over 20,000 sea urchins are served in the main square over the weekend. Just 5 euros buys a glass of local Picpoul white wine and a dish of raw sea urchins, which are generally accompanied with slices of fresh baguettes and butter.
The urchins are hand picked by divers in the neighboring lagoon by the Mediterranean and sold in the local markets for approximately a mere 4 euros per dozen.
At first glance, admittedly, sea urchins do not appear particularly appealing, but they are comparable to oysters for delivering a fresh, straight-from-the-sea flavour. Often described as tasting like the sea without being fishy, they have a “creamy ocean, slightly sweet flavour”. Rich in vitamin C and vitamin A, they are a good source of protein. (Also rumoured to be an aphrodisiac, but that’s another story…)
Please bear in mind if you plan on travelling to the Mediterranean coast that sea urchins are not available in the summer (from May to October). It is the reproduction season with laws instated to protect the species.
Scrambled eggs with sea urchin
8 eggs, 12 sea urchins, 2 spoons of butter, salt and pepper
Open sea urchins and retrieve the « coral » ,
Beat eggs , add salt and pepper.
In a double boiler, first melt t 1 teaspoon? spoon of butter. If you don’t have a double boiler, you can easily place a light, non-plastic bowl set over a pot of lightly steaming boiling/simmering? water
Add eggs and stir with wooden spoon until the eggs become creamy
In a saucepan, melt 1 spoon teaspoon? of butter and add the sea urchin coral coral wasn’t explained , heat for 1 minute
Pour over the scrambled eggs and serve
As legend would have it...
- Fossil sea urchins were thought to be stones that had fallen from the sky during a storm.
- The druids thought that sea urchins were eggs of snakes.
- Sea urchins “Eurhodia”, found in abundance, are called ” lucky stones ” in Jamaica.
And the facts…
- The sea urchin first appeared five-million years ago and more than 200 species of sea urchin populate waters around the world.
- In the south of England, fossil sea urchins are placed on the racks of the dairies to prevent milk from turning.
- They are believed to be strong aphrodisiacs.
- Sea urchins prefer rocks to the ocean floor because their tentacles can cling to rocks.
- Sea urchins do not have a brain.
If you’d like to travel to Corsica with me, check out my “Staggering beauty of Corsica” tour.
For food lovers, join Cheryl Alters Jamison on her Excited about Food tours to Provence and Occitanie which includes tasting french caviar and bouillabaisse. Join Patricia Sands and Deborah Bine on our Memories You Promised Yourself tours include tasting delicacies such as oysters.