The Telegraph: Why sea urchins, those spiny, ocean-going gonads, are taking over the nation's restaurant menus
by William Sitwell
August 7, 2019
The last of the tiny black spikes is finally out. After days of walking around as if clumsily tip-toeing across hot coals, my heel is now free of sea-urchin spines. I trod on the damn thing while hobbling gracelessly down a scorching pebbled beach on the Aeolian island of Lipari. As I limped back to shore, the locals enjoyed the spectacle – because in Sicily, they don’t step on sea urchins, they eat them. And this comes as something of a surprise to many tourists in such places, because the idea of eating sea urchin is about as weird as eating that other holiday terror, jellyfish.
Yet I can attest to the sea urchin’s exquisite flavour and texture. The spiny shell, when cracked open, reveals a rusty coloured roe and meat that is remarkably un-salty. The Japanese eat it raw – as sashimi called uni – often serving it alongside raw scallops. Wrapped in seaweed with a dab of wasabi sauce, it is quite the creamy delicacy.
Returning from my holidays, sea urchins seemed to have followed me. According to T&S Enterprise, which supplies sashimi-grade fish to 500 restaurants in Britain, sales have, um, spiked. “Whereas a decade ago we would have supplied between 1,000kg and 1,500kg of sea urchin, nowadays that figure is closer to 6,000kg,” said T&S’s sales manager Richard Cohen.
Indeed, they have already beaten me to London. For in Borough Market, there is already a queue for a £3 mouthful from the seafood bar at the Furness fish stall. “We’re going through a hell of a lot of sea urchin at the moment,” says stall-holder Ben Mclean, who reckons he “shucks” around 300 a day; wearing protective gloves, of course.
And while oysters present particular problems – the shells can seem impenetrable for the amateur and many find themselves slicing their fingers as the blades fly off the pesky thing – sea urchins have their own particular challenges. The shells are easy to penetrate, but the spikes seem to have a mind of their own and fly off; the mixture within can be an unpleasant, mucus-like gelatinous mess.
Yet the flavour – and its juxtaposition with the creature’s dangerous, black exterior – is as intriguing as it is delicious. Many of McClean’s customers are from the Far East, but he says there is a growing number of Western faces waiting in line. My first taste of sea urchin was some 25 years ago, at Sardinian restaurant Olivo, opened in Belgravia by Mauro Sanna in 1990.
Sanna, a stickler for perfection, would have the sea urchins flown in packed in ice. He would serve them with pasta, but also raw in the shell for a select number of Japanese customers who ordered them off-menu. Today, they no longer feature on the menu as the kitchen had difficulty with supplies. In fact, the rise in the sea urchin’s popularity means that many restaurants are struggling – and those that do get their hands on them are keeping very quiet about their source.
One restaurant that does have them at the moment is Clapham hotspot Trinity. The one-Michelin-starred establishment adds the ingredient to pasta and risotto. It has become a favourite with regulars, according to sous-chef Harry Kirkpatrick, “because it has that luxurious taste that you normally associate with caviar and foie gras”.
But like those two ingredients, as the popularity of sea urchins grows, so does the controversy. Stocks are depleting, and as a truly wild product of the sea it is unprotected, and there are worries that the unchecked harvesting of them will simply decimate their numbers.
“Wild sea urchin populations have become overfished,” says Ólafur Örn Ásmundssun CEO of Iceland Seafood, who is experimenting with ways of farming them. There is now a dedicated hatchery run by Irishman John Chamberlain in Dunmanus Bay, County Cork, while another seafood business grows them in tanks off the coast of Israel. This could help to sate the demand.
Already British sushi chains are putting them on menus, it’s only time before we see them on supermarket shelves. Although, if squeamish British palates knew that the gooey substance oozing out of a sliced urchin shell is, in fact, gonads, they might want to avoid eating, as well as stepping on them.