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Tastebuds: Sea Urchins in Marseille

It's time to harvest a delectable treat, straight from the Provençal sea

Featured January 10 Words by Sheila Johnston
Tastebuds: Sea Urchins in Marseille

There is almost nothing a southern Frenchman - and woman - likes more than a thumping good street party. Unless it's a street party with something delicious to eat. And who cares if it's the middle of winter? Throughout January, February and March, in seaside villages all along the beautiful Blue Coast (the strip running west of Marseille towards the Camargue), thousands of people gather on Sunday mornings to tuck into one of the region's best-kept gastronomic secrets: the sea urchin. Amazingly, the winter Provençal sun usually comes out to beam on the festivities.

At these sea urchin feasts, or oursinades, fishermen sell the delicacy fresh from the sea at knockdown prices. Armed with a cardboard platter of these and a plastic beaker of crisp white Côtes de Provence wine, you make for one of the long wooden tables along the quayside, or squat down on an upturned boat, bollard, or anything that comes to hand.

The snag: you have to shell the spiky little devils yourself. But even this has been taken care of: the stalls sell circular gadgets, a sort of cross between a knife and a nutcracker, that allow you to get at the creamy pink-yellow "coral" without becoming a human pincushion. You can always splash out on a plate of urchins pre-opened and served with fine tableware at one of the seafront restaurants. But then you'd be missing the fun of the easygoing, no-frills atmosphere.

Typically, the whole idea started as a joke. Maryse Canepa, who has organised the oursinades at Carry-Le-Rouet for the past 14 years and comes herself from a family of fishermen, explains that in 1952 the mayor of Cap Rousset, a man of an imposing poundage named Jean-Baptiste Grimaldi, offered his own weight in sea urchins to the local populace. The idea caught on, and since then the oursinades have almost become victims of their own success.

The sea urchin is not a shellfish but an echinoderm. Around 800 species exist worldwide, five or six of which can be found along the Blue Coast, although only one of them is edible. The harvest lasts from 1 November to 15 April; locals claim that the colder the temperature of the water, the tastier the catch.

It is strictly regulated. Boats are banned from trawling, as they damage the seaweed on which the urchins feed. Instead, scuba divers collect them by hand: just 25 divers in the Marseille area hold a permit to do this commercially. Only adult urchins of a minimum 5cm wide may be culled.

Even so, thanks to illegal fishing, over-fishing and pollution, the population is under threat, according to Frederic Bachet, director of the Blue Coast Marine Park at Carry-Le-Rouet. Today, there is talk of reducing the number of oursinades, or of transforming them into generalised seafood feasts, where the spread also includes mussels, oysters and prawns.

But the sea urchin will always be the star of the show. Enjoyed as a delicacy since Roman times, the taste has been described in ecstatic terms by Pierre Gagnaire, the top chef whose restaurants include the super-expensive Sketch in London and the three Michelin-starred Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. "It is incredibly complex, at once bitter and sweet, radically sea scented and slightly smoky, with notes of hazelnut, honey and even blood!" Gagnaire enthuses. "The texture is creamy and elusive. It's an extreme, almost sexual sensation."

Best of all, this day out is cheap. Really cheap. A dozen urchins to open yourself will set you back between €6-€10, a fraction of what you would pay in Paris, where the perishable creatures have to be flown in. Parking is always impossible, so go by rail. The towns are all served from Marseille by the Blue Coast line, one of the most spectacular train trips in France, and French Rail even offers a special concessionary "sea urchin fare".

A popular French expression to describe someone who is tight-fisted with his money is: "He has sea urchins in his pockets." ("Il a des oursins dans les poches.") Well, you could go along to one of these oursinades with a handbag full of hedgehogs and still have an excellent time.

WHERE TO EAT
SEA URCHINS

BARCELONA
BAR MUT

This ultra-hip tapas bar offers a Catalan-influenced menu, including a dish of carpaccio of sea urchins and scallops. 192 Carrer de Pau Claris, tel: +349 3217 4338

MILAN
TRATTORIA SICILIANA DA SALVATORE

Sea urchin roe with pasta is a favourite dish at this traditional family restaurant. 35 Viale Brianza, tel: +390 2669 2784

PARIS
PIERRE GAGNAIRE

Urchins (oursins) combined with unusual ingredients such as cauliflower, asparagus and sea bream, figure large at the flagship restaurant of one of France's most experimental chefs. 6 Rue Balzac, Paris 8, tel: +33 (0)1 5836 1250


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