Purple sea urchins (uni) are currently swarming on the west coast, from San Francisco all the way up to northern Washington. According to a recent AP article, millions of the spiky, squat spheroids have decimated kelp beds and left delicate coastal ecosystems denuded and in risk of collapse.
We don’t need much of an excuse to eat urchin roe, so we drove down to Humboldt County to forage what uni we could and help save the west coast.
We timed our visit to coincide with the new moon/spring tide, and used Google Maps to select Baker Beach as a likely hunting ground. Here’s what happened when we got there:
(click for larger images)
Baker Beach has easy access to rocky sections.
On the ocean side of some large rocks we found our old friends, gooseneck barnacles.
This odd lump is a chiton…
…which is apparently edible, but the tiny amount of meat on them is very tough.
“I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
We didn’t invite little Prufrock to our party.
Out on the tide-exposed rocks we found our spiny prey.
Urchins like to jam themselves into crevices to elude predators.
We came well equipped, with grabbers and scrapers.
Aya chose her sweater to match. She thinks of things like that.
After much cleaning and prepping, we feasted.
Washed in white wine, the raw uni roe sits atop hot rice and salty nori.
And we couldn’t help but invite some goosenecks to the party. Always a special treat.
Next time we will take our snorkels and wet-suits and go out to deeper water to gather the big fat ones from the ocean floor.
Winter is truffle season in Oregon, so the weather can be tricky to plan around. We have been trying to arrange a hunt for a few years but have been foiled by soaking wet or snow-covered ground. This year things came together and we hired a wonderful guide, James, and his lovely truffle dog, Augie (click for larger images).
Hunting grounds: a 20 year-old Douglas Fir plantation in North West Oregon.
Our guide, James, and his truffle dog, Augie.
As Augie digs we gather round to intercept.
Augie gets a treat…
and we get…
Because the fruiting bodies of truffles are all underground, it was quite a different style of mushroom hunting than what we’re used to. Rather than looking around for splashes of colour or tell-tale signs of mushrooms, we just followed Augie and watched as he bashed around happily in the woods. Augie is a Lagotto Romagnolo, so he’s born to hunt, swim, and retrieve, but he has also been trained from a young age to find truffles, and he’s really good at it. Never mind that they’re all 20-30 cm underground, he can smell them out and is quick to dig. As the dirt flies, James gets ready to distract Augie with a treat in one hand and to snatch up the truffle with the other. Although he prefers treats to truffles, Augie still managed to gobble a few of the precious things.
You can hire James and Augie for your own truffle hunt via their website: Terra-Fleurs.
Watch Augie do his thing:
Truffles don’t have much flavour, and the texture is firm and a little crumbly, like a raw mushroom cap. It’s best to slice them raw, as thinly as possible onto hot, fatty food to make the most of the intense aroma. The aromatic compounds are oil-soluble, so they’ll infuse fats with their wonderful scent. We put a wheel of Brie in with our truffles for a few days and it came out smelling strongly of truffles. We have heard people do the same with eggs and blocks of butter.
The scent of white truffles is difficult to describe; it’s wonderfully earthy, richly herbal and has high notes of spicy garlic. The black ones are also earthy with a sweetly sweaty character. They smell strongly of dark chocolate and have a distinct pineapple fruitiness. James says he can’t leave his truffles open and exposed to air on the drive home because the smell in the car just becomes overpowering.
Here’s what we did with some of our truffles (click for larger images):
Our collection of mostly white truffles with two large black ones, at top right.
White truffles start out white inside but gradually turn a warm cafe-au-lait brown as they ripen.
One of the best vehicles for truffles is a simple cheese pizza without garlic or other competing aromatics. The hot cheese carried the deep, intoxicating truffle smell, filling the room.
Another great option is atop grilled meat with a creamy, red wine sauce. The bitterness of the grilled endive was a great match.
The black ones usually grow further north so we were lucky to find a couple.
Sliced as thinly as possible.
Creamy scrambled eggs with Brie made for a wonderful base for black truffles and a very decadent breakfast.
Gooseneck barnacles are so ugly it’s hard to think of them as food. We’ve heard that in Spain and Portugal, percebes can cost up to $200 per kilo at restaurants. If people are spending that much to have them with a glass of Sherry, they must be pretty special.
On a recent trip to the far side of Vancouver Island we spotted some on the rocks at low tide and took the opportunity to see what the fuss was all about.
A very low tide gave access to rocks that are usually out of reach.
Gooseneck barnacles compete with the mussels for space.
Because they are filter feeders, they prefer turbulent waters. The biggest ones grow on the far, ocean-facing side of the rocks.
The big Pacific waves help the muscle grow fat and long.
A sampling of seafood from the rocks.
Hard to believe that inside these dinosaur-like heads and leathery bodies hides incredibly tender flesh with a flavour something like shrimp crossed with scallops.
Kamala clapped her hands loudly, so that the golden bangles tinkled. “Your poetry is very good, brown Samana, and truly there is nothing to lose if I give you a kiss for it.” She drew him to her with her eyes. He put his face against hers, placed his lips against hers, which were like a freshly cut fig.”
This passage alwayscomes to mind when Vancouver’s fig trees are heavy with fat fruit in the hot weeks of August. But the simile “like a freshly cut fig ” did not conjure up a very desirable image when I read the passage for the first time as a teenager. At that point I was only familiar with dried, wrinkled brown figs that came threaded onto a loop of straw. It was decades before I first met up with the luscious red interior of a fresh one and finally understood.
We like to poach these summer treats with ginger and cardamom and serve with a scoop of ice cream, or slice thickly for a pizza topping.
This year Aya made some wonderful tarts (click any image to see larger photos):
Fresh, fat figs.
Slices soaking in lemon-cardamom syrup.
Slices assembled atop a bed of almond filling and pastry.
Ready for the oven.
Caramelized fig almond tart, with lemon and cardamom.
October rains bring forth the mushrooms on the Pacific Coast, including the Boletus edulis. Known in France as cep and in Italy as porcini, it is treasured for its intense aroma and flavourful, meaty flesh.
Click through to see finding, weighing and cooking these delicious “little piglets”.