A Prickly Passion

Ester Laushway (February 2006)

On the first three Sundays in February, the little port of Carry-le-Rouet on the Côte Bleue, a 10-kilometre stretch of unspoiled coast west of Marseille, is invaded by thousands of hungry people. You could call them sex-starved, since the food they crave, queue up for, and slurp down greedily are the genitalia of a spiny marine animal – the sea urchin. Its private parts, more commonly and appetisingly known as roe, are deep-orange in colour and have a delicate briny-sweet flavour, which is a bit of an acquired taste, but once acquired, quickly becomes addictive.

Some 7,000 dozen sea urchins were consumed last year during the Mois de l’Oursin, a food festival that started as a joke. Back in 1952, the mayor was a rotund little man with a good appetite and sense of humour. The local fishermen, in a Provençal parody of the Moslem custom of presenting the Aga Khan his own weight in gold, weighed their leader and offered him his weight in sea urchins.

The incident became part of local folklore, and in 1960, the first Sunday in February was declared la Journée de l’Oursin, with fishermen bringing in boatloads of the prickly morsels, to be opened and eaten at quayside. The annual tasting day proved so popular that it expanded into a month, with other briny delicacies joining the sea urchins.

Nowadays, the stands set up along the harbour edge sell all manner of seafood, including raw oysters and grilled sardines. A community-sized paella and a good supply of white wine by the glass or bottle also help to keep the crowds sated and happy. The fish vendors stay clustered along the far end of the jetty, while closer to town, such fairground fare as crêpes, cotton candy and toffee apples is on offer. Local artisans have joined the fray as well, selling jewellery, pottery, soaps and other Provençal market standards.

Sea urchins are still the prime gastronomic attraction, though, and are served by the dozen, simply cut open, on a polystyrene tray, with a wedge of lemon and a chunk of baguette. People bring their own folding table and chairs, or simply sit on the harbour rocks in the sun, which almost never fails to shine.

Michel Meacci, who comes from an Italian seafaring family, is president of the grand-sounding Syndicat Régional des Pêcheurs-Plongeurs à Scaphandre Autonomes – the only sea urchin fishermen’s union in France. They use scuba-diving equipment and fish by hand, with a grappe (rake), calibrated to pick up urchins with a shell of at least 5 centimetres in diameter. A good day’s fishing brings in about 100 dozen sea urchins and there are no official limits, but to maintain the sea urchin population, which is their livelihood, the union members have reduced their fishing hours and the season.

“We work from sunrise to noon, but not on Sundays,” explains Michel. “In the past, we would start in September and fish until the end of April. Since last year, we start on the first of November and finish in April. So you see, we are very conscious that we have to make an effort to manage this natural resource properly.”

Poaching is a perennial problem. Anyone is allowed to fish a maximum of 4 dozen sea urchins and take them home to eat. One the other hand, says Michel: “When you catch someone with 30, 40, or 50 dozen sea urchins, it’s not to eat them, but to sell them, and that’s called poaching.” A special unit of the Coast Guard, which patrols the coast and does spot checks of local fish vendors, has managed to eliminate the worst offenders.

Michel describes his prickly prey with real fondness, as shy creatures, very sensitive to temperature and weather variations, which only leave the safety of the seafloor when all is calm. Then sea urchin float up, ballerina-like, to graze along the algae. They reproduce in spring, when, he confides, they are “in full sexual effervescence”, or “plein à bloc” (full to the brim). They indulge in group sex, all clustering together, with the females expulsing their eggs and the males their sperm. The fertilized larvae drift away, attach themselves somewhere and start to grow, reaching the legal 5-centimetre diameter within a year.

On the 5th , 12th and 19th February, Michel and his boat Le Virgile will be among the fishermen bringing dripping-fresh sea urchins by the thousands to the dockside of Carry. If you are the least bit hesitant about trying your first sea urchin, stop by and see him. If there is any man who can turn you into a true sea urchin eater, the kind who scoffs 3 – 4 dozen at a time, then it is him!

For further details, call the Tourist Office of Carry-le-Rouet at 04 42 13 20 36 or visit their Web site: www.carry-lerouet.com/presentation_oursinade

Sea Urchin Tips and Titbits

Buying sea urchins
The season lasts November – April, with the best time in March, when they are at their fullest and tastiest. Buy them only when they are alive, i.e. moving their spines. Droopy spines are a bad sign.

Telling boys and girls apart
If the five star-shaped strips of roe are an intense reddish orange, you are dealing with a female, generally acknowledged to have a finer taste than the paler orange male, often showing a milky substance (the sperm).

Preparing Sea Urchins
Like truffles, they are at their best uncooked: simply drizzled with lemon and mopped up with bread.

Michel Meacci recommends a sea urchin omelette, as long as you only add the urchin roe at the end, just before you fold the omelette in half. Take it off the heat straight away, pour a glass of dry white wine and enjoy.

Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence