The Sea Urchin Festival

I’m counting on you not remembering the little something that I posted about this festival two years ago. Oops. If you had forgotten, I guess I just reminded you. Anyway, this is admittedly a re-run, but I should amend my earlier critique of the sea urchin by adding that since 2006 I have actually grown to like them. So I hope you enjoy this old story with its new pictures (more photos are at right).

In Carry le Rouet, the first three Sundays of every month are dedicated to the Fête des Oursinades, or Sea Urchin Festival. The Sea Urchin is truly fascinating. Teams of guys head out at two in the morning, decked out in wet suits and scuba diving equipment (I admit, I am only assuming they are guys because I think women are too sensible to do such a thing, but it could be that there are some crazy chicks out there as well). In groups of three or four, they brave the bone-chilling cold of the February waters and collect each sea urchin one by one, from the bottom of the sea, by hand. Then, around sunrise, if they have not frozen to death or had their hands run through by the prickly needles of the oursin, they return to the shore with their catch, presumably to be greeted by loved ones crying, “What the hell have you been doing? Are you out of your mind?”

Only the French would go to so much effort and devote nearly a month of Sundays to honor such an ugly, spiky sea creature. Apparently, this porcupinie-like mollusk gets its name from the Old Englilsh word for “hedgehog” and is like catnip to food connoisseurs, especially when served in Japanese cuisine. So, once again, the French taste buds are the explanation.

What I can’t figure out is how someone first determined that there was something to EAT inside this gruesome-looking thing. Maybe the first guy to try one was a fisherman who caught it by accident and figured that if mother nature was saying “stay away” with such vehemence, she must be guarding something pretty good. That’s debatable, in my opinion. Have you ever been swimming in the ocean and gotten a mouth full of sea water? When it happened, did you think to yourself, “Wow, if only that had had the consistency of ketchup, it would have been quite good?” If so, then sea urchins are for you.

I think what probably really happened is that this fisherman’s friends all dared him to eat it. It’s likely that they wheedled and cajoled and offered him money, finally pulling out the big guns and calling him a sissy. Then he ate it and “Tom Sawyer-ed” them, pretending like it was the best thing he had ever tasted. He probably went on and on about its delicate, exquisite flavor until, intrigued, his friends begged to try one for themselves. Then, rather than spitting it out and looking like chumps in front of the other fishermen, they pretended it was great, too. So then more people tried it and pretended to like it, and so on, and here we are today with an entire festival full of people slurping them down and trying not to make a face. That’s my theory.

But you don’t have to like sea urchins to enjoy the festival, which features stands selling everything from quilts, pottery, jewelry, flowers and artwork to olives, pastries, candied apples and cotton candy. The port is wall-to-wall with restaurants featuring super-fresh fish and seafood dishes and in February, on a sunny day, it’s even warm enough to enjoy your lunch outside. It was not, however, warm enough to swim, though we did see six completely insane people giving that a go. There’s also a scenic path that winds along the coast, offering opportunities to lounge on the rocks that line the shore, watching sailboats drift slowly by.

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4 thoughts on “The Sea Urchin Festival

  1. hehe uni matsuri! Can’t stand the stuff personally but I love festivals! I’d even pretend to like it just for s&g’s

  2. [this is good] Apologies, I can’t bring myself to read this post. The last time I got interested in sea urchins I accidentally turned my company’s homepage into a sea-urchin site. It was really embarassing and something I try hard to forget but am generally unsuccessful…
    I really enjoyed reading your asparagus post, however.

  3. [this is good] Tara, this is hands-down the BEST embarrasing moment story I have ever heard. Extra points for creativity. I’m torn between wanting to know details and just letting my imagination run wild… No, I think I want to know…

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