Sea Urchins, for the First Time

Food and travel are a perpetually linked in my memories. As I move deeper into my forties, I’ve noticed that the nature of my memory is changing…it’s somewhat less fixed and document-like, more of a tapestry and food makes up an increasing portion of that imagery, especially first tastes. One of my all time favorite new food experiences was eating ricci di mare (sea urchins) in Gallipoli, Italy about 20 years ago.

I was a college student spending the summer in a small town in Puglia, essentially the insole of the boot that is Italy. After several weeks of soaking up the Southern Italian sun, we decided to go to Gallipoli (situated on the heel of the boot) to see the sites. One of the must-do spots in that ancient city, and former Spanish colony, is the Castello Angioino. While touring the storybook thirteenth century fortress with the Ionian Sea lapping at every wall, I noticed an outdoor fish market off to one side. Now I’ve always been a sucker for any type of food market, but especially traditional old word markets with many small individual sellers. They are great places to learn about new foods and local cuisines. Even though we were far from our rented house, with no ice chest to transport fish back to our little kitchen, I decided to explore a bit.

There were vendors sawing thin steaks off of whole local swordfish with their long bills still attached….piles of small fish of many different shapes and colors all mixed together; everything was fresh, glistening brightly and arranged perfectly as if for a food magazine. Then I saw something totally new…a huge pile of sea urchins! Up until that point, I had no idea they were even edible, in fact I was quite afraid of these spiny little guys since my only other experience was stepping on one and getting the quills stuck in my foot as a kid during a vacation in Puerto Rico.
Sea Urchin on FoodistaSea Urchin
At first I wasn’t even sure they were meant for food. As I tried to think of why someone would want to buy such a thing, a young local couple walked up to the vendor, who was mostly hidden behind the massive pile of little spiky balls. After a few thousand lire (remember those!?!) exchanged hands, I watched the merchant go to work on a half dozen urchins. He held them in a calloused, but otherwise bare hand, and using a small knife cracked into the bottom of the shell scooping out most of the creatures’ innards, leaving just little orange stripes of soft tissue stuck to the insides of the shells. These he arranged on a metal platter and served with slices of lemon and pane pugliese, that wonderful, crunchy crusted-soft center local bread. I watched in amazement as the two market patrons squirted a bit of lemon juice into the shells and then used the bread to scoop out the orange bits of urchin. Then I noticed the rapt look on their faces…somewhere between “Mmmm this tastes good” and erotic pleasure.
Pugliese Bread
An avowed adventurous eater, I decided I needed to try this. After asking the urchin-seller how much they cost and explaining that I’d never tried them, he enthusiastically shared that this was a specialty of Galliopoli and the portion you eat was the sex organ. Undaunted, I ordered a half-dozen and watched as he went to work. Now up close, I realized that not only were these porcupines of the sea still alive, but that they were moving their spines as he eviscerated them. Starting to feel just a bit queasy, I was determined to at least try one. As he proudly presented me with a platter of urchin, which continued to move and scratch at the platter underneath, my host asked me where I was from. Upon learning my nationality, the Gallipolese said that very few turisti Americani patronized his stall. He then went into a bag behind the table, pulled out a bottle of prosecco and offered me a plastic cupful, explaining that it was the best thing to have with ricci di mare. He wanted me to go back to L’America, tell everyone how delicious they are and send them to visit.

Totally beyond any fear, my mouth was watering as I mimicked the Italians I had just seen by squeezing a bit of lemon into the shells and scooping out what I now knew were the reproductive organs. The smell was intoxicating…a bit pungent with slight hints of the ocean. As I bit into the coated bread, the taste was intense…sweet and briny, sensual like an oyster, but with more body and flavor. Looking up I smiled across the table (no doubt with the same expression I’d seen a few minutes before) and was encouraged to take a sip of the sparkling Italian wine. As I sipped, the little bubbles went to work and coaxed even more flavor out of the bread and urchin…and here’s where I run out of ways to describe that flavor and texture…I simply don’t have the words.

In the years since, I can’t remember how many times I’ve eaten sea urchin, but most has been in Japanese restaurants as part of a sushi preparation. But I will never forget that first time eating them in Italia!

Barnaby Dorfman