Certain animals, like eels, octopuses and snails, that are greatly fancied as food in the Mediterranean are off-putting to folks elsewhere, just because of how they look. But few appear less appetizing to the uninitiated than the sea urchin. No surprise, then, that the great Catalan Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí considered its form to be among nature’s most perfect creations.
For anyone gingerly wading barefoot in shallow Mediterranean waters across a rocky bottom dotted with urchins, the challenge is not to step on one. Their bodies are covered with sharp spines, and a jab can be painful. Those who have eaten them, however, know about the roe, the delicious edible part with a unique, robust flavor—a salty, pure tang of the sea with a subtle sweetness in the background. (See “How to Eat a Sea Urchin,” below)
Urchins were once common in the shallows along Catalonia’s Costa Brava, in northeastern Spain, where they are called garoines in Catalan and erizos de mar in Spanish and are held in high esteem. From a young age, Dalí gathered them with his father at the family’s summer home in the fishing village of Cadaqués. They were the elder Dalí’s favorite food and became bound up in the artist’s mind as a symbol of his lifelong love-hate relationship with his father.
The painter included the animal in a number of his major works, including a giant urchin in the foreground of The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and one floating above the altar in the 1949 version of The Madonna of Port Lligat. Inside the renovated fisherman’s cottage just outside Cadaqués, on the bay of Port Lligat, where Dalí lived with Gala, his wife and muse, a huge painting of a sea urchin covers one wall. Another room is rounded and domed in the animal’s shape.
It was not only its form that fascinated Dalí. As part of his training for aspiring artists seeking inspiration, he recommended that they gather three dozen sea urchins on one of the two days preceding a full moon. This, he wrote in his book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, is when they are at the peak of their “sedative and narcotic virtues.” After eating the 36 urchins for lunch, he advised, take a deep nap. Wake in the late afternoon and sit in front of a blank canvas until the sun sets and it’s too dark to see.
Along the Costa Brava, most diners opt for six at a serving, and they have been enjoying this delicacy around the Mediterranean for millennia. Aristotle described sea urchins more than 2,000 years ago, and Athenaeus of Naucratis recorded them as a Greek banquet food in the third century a.d. In modern times, they have mostly been a local food gathered by people living near them and eaten pretty much on the spot. In Sicily, they are consumed raw but also found in a wonderful spaghetti dish, pasta ai ricci di mare, with garlic, olive oil and a pepperoncini to add bite. In Greece, the dish called ahinosalata is a meze of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice and sea-urchin roe.
Fifty years ago in Cadaqués, when there was not much to do on weekends, friends would meet on the beach for a garoinada, a get-together centered on eating sea urchins. They would gather them, then accompany the meal with crusty bread and a hearty red wine, recalls José Luis García, one of the few remaining professional fishermen in the village. These days, the spiny animals are in gastronomic demand and growing ever scarcer, selling wholesale for more than a dollar apiece during the November to April gathering season. “Now you wade out here, you won’t see a single one,” García says. “They’re all gone.”
Catalonia’s most famous chef, Ferran Adrià, called “the Salvador Dalí of the kitchen” by Gourmet magazine, also has a thing for sea urchins, having used them in dishes featuring turnip couscous and lamb’s brains with sea grapes. In the winter months, when the roe is at its best—bright orange, firm and sweet—urchins are served more traditionally in restaurants along the Costa Brava. In fact, during the first three months of every year, most of the restaurants in Palafrugell, an hour and a half northeast of Barcelona, celebrate a garoinada, offering a plate of freshly gathered, ready-to-eat sea urchins as a standard first course.
How to Eat a Sea Urchin
Enjoying sea urchins at home is simple, but you might want to start by wearing work gloves—at least the first few times.
1. Cut into the soft “eye” on the bottom with strong scissors, and then continue to cut around the shell, so that the convex top can be lifted off.
2. Shake out the dark viscera.
3. Firmly attached to the top side of the shell will be five strips of bright orange roe (actually the animal’s gonads), in the rough shape of a star. Dig these out with a spoon or a knife, and eat them raw. Some people add a drop or two of lemon juice. Others don’t bother.