Tasting Mediterranean

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Goose barnacle, barnacle goose...

There is a curious sort of shellfish living on the coast of the Alentejo, the pride of the local cuisine.

Photo by Georges Desrues

At first glance, the cliffs on the seashore near the Portuguese city Sines look like any of the usual rock faces on the Atlantic coast. But only those who dare to venture into the sea where the spray beats against the jagged stone formations know that they harbour hidden treasure. Because that is where the stalked barnacles (or gooseneck barnacles) grow – percebes in Portuguese – crustaceans classified further as Pollicipes pollicipes. Once upon a time, it was believed that barnacle geese grew from these aquatic creatures – a bit of local folklore, which offered the advantage of making consumption of the waterfowl permissible on Roman Catholic days of fasting.

‘The percebes live in the surf, where they find protection against predators, and because they feed on the plankton they can filter out of the spray,’ says marine biologist João Castro (University of Évora, Portugal), who has been doing research on these unusual animals for many years. He stoops down and scrapes a couple of percebes off the rock with his pocketknife. Up close, the creatures appear even stranger. From a beak-like capitulum with calcareous plates, an elongated muscle extends, enclosed by a leathery skin forming the peduncle, which attaches to rocks or other hard substrates.

‘These organisms are hermaphrodites; they gather plankton out of the water with their little feather-like appendages underneath the plates and they cling to the rock by means of an organic cement produced in the base of the muscular peduncle,’ says Castro. And it is exactly this muscle that makes the creature such a sought-after delicacy, one that in Europe is found only here, in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean on the coasts of Portugal and Spain, parts of northern France and southern England.

The German-language name for these crustaceans means literally ‘duck mussel’, and the English word refers to geese – these misnomers originated in earlier times when there was little knowledge concerning the migration of birds; folks never saw geese or ducks building nests in temperate Europe. ‘Other species of stalked barnacles are often found on driftwood, so they believed that the birds grew out of these creatures, assuming that the barnacles were attached to branches before they fell in the water’, explains the marine biologist, looking out over the ocean through his binoculars.

There, out in the surf, is a small island – not much more than a large rock – upon which stands a man with a sack on his back, who jumps into the water and mounts a bodyboard, paddling toward the shore. ‘This little islet has been named Percebeira, because it is renowned for the abundant, top-quality percebes that grow there’, says Castro.

‘The whole business is rather strictly regulated; there are closed seasons, bag size and minimum size limits,’ the scientist states as the fisherman crawls ashore, pulling his sack and his board out of the water. 

Jorge Pereira is a muscular fellow in his mid-forties, and his athletic body fills out the neoprene suit rather handsomely; the collector of percebes carries his most important tool at his side on a belt, a sort of elongated chisel called an arrelhada, with which he scrapes the crustaceans off the rock. The fisherman says that he has been gathering percebes as professional here for some ten years – and yes, the work counts as sport and physical training as well. ‘And I will admit that there is a bit of danger to it’, he says, opening the sack of netting to show off his catch. ‘One must know the ocean very well, and be able to figure the exact right moment to dive into the surf.’ Nevertheless, accidents continue to occur, sometimes trivial, sometimes more severe – every now and then even deadly, Pereira says, pointing to another rock. ‘That one is called Chico Chapa, named for a fisherman who suffered a fatal accident there.’

He now has to examine his catch more closely, sorting the percebes by size, in order to know how much he will be paid per kilogramme. But it will be between 25 and 50 Euros, he says.

In the seafood restaurant Cais da Estação in Sines, the percebes are prepared in the simplest fashion imaginable, just boiled for a few minutes in seawater. It’s certainly better this way, because it would be a shame if their intense flavour of the ocean were somehow masked or adulterated.

And to eat them, one must insert a fingernail between the capitulum and the base of the rough skin, and pull it away with a twisting motion. The delicate orange-brown muscle is hidden underneath, which tastes like a combination of prawn, crab and mussel. But more than anything, percebes connoisseurs say, they taste like the surf: like plankton, sea spray and the ocean – a true experience that is certainly worth the price. Especially then, when one considers the fact that percebes fishermen like Jorge Pereira risk life and limb to harvest them from the sea.