The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. covered, concealed, and preserved not only the bodies of the wealthy ancients who lived in Pompeii, but also many aspects of their daily lives. Through excavations, archaeologists have discovered the homes, shops, clothing, art, and food of the time. Among the preserved refuse were shells of sea urchins, a culinary delicacy then as they are today.
Sea urchins are spiny, round animals that live in the seabed, inhabiting all oceans and depth zones. Their hard shells range in size from 1 to 4 inches. They have no visible eyes, legs, or means of propulsion, but can crawl slowly using tube feet. Sometimes the most visible sign of life is the spines, which are attached to ball-and-socket joints and can point in any direction. Touch elicits a prompt reaction from the spines, which converge to the touched point. They feed on algae and kelp.
The English word “urchin” is an old word for hedgehog, which sea urchins resemble. In Italian and Sicilian, the word “riccio” refers to both a groundhog and a sea urchin. The gonads of both male and female sea urchins, called roe, are delicacies in many parts of the world, especially in Japan, where it is known as “uni” and is served raw as sashimi or in sushi. Perhaps the best quality sea urchins are harvested in Southern California and in the Mediterranean, where pasta dishes with ricci are enjoyed throughout Italy’s coastal regions, especially in Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia.
In California, the best sea urchins are caught off the coast of Santa Barbara. Because of unique warm and cold swirling currents, the waters in the Santa Barbara Channel produce top quality uni. Commercial divers harvest them 22 miles off the coast of the harbor. The industry blossomed after 1997 when abalone had been overfished; divers were no longer permitted to catch them, and they pivoted to “the next gold” in the sea urchins. In the beginning, about 80% were exported to Japan. Now more and more are consumed locally as Americans develop a taste for the roe, particularly in local sushi restaurants. Uni is expensive, but a little goes a long way.
Catching sea urchins is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Divers work in an environment that they can’t control and that can change any minute. Currents and wind are unpredictable. Divers rely on boats that can get stranded and breathing apparatus that can get caught in the kelp beds. Sometimes it is freezing cold. And then there are the sharks. A 2021 documentary, “The Delicacy,” follows divers off the coast of Santa Barbara. The film premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and is now available on Prime Video.
The flavor of sea urchins is difficult to describe because no other seafood tastes like this roe. It was been described as briny, sweet, and creamy; it seems to take on different flavors as one eats it. It has also been described as umami and “panna cotta ocean butter.” The roe tends to have a bright gold, yellow or orange color.
In Italy, urchins are considered a cool-weather food. In Sicily you usually begin to find them sold in the middle of November until late April, when the urchin season is over. There are various recipes for spaghetti ai ricci di mare. For the urchin sauce, most recipes include garlic or onion (never both), a small amount of fresh tomato pulp, fresh parsley, salt, freshly ground pepper and extra virgin olive oil. The guiding principle is that nothing should overpower the flavor of the urchin meat. The pasta should be long and can be spaghetti, vermicelli, or linguine.
Mmm. I love “i ricci.” On the other hand, my dad said they tasted like kerosene. Thanks for the memory. Sent from my iPhone