Gooseneck Barnacles Are Winning Over American Chefs (and Diners)
Let's face it: Some of the dishes we cherish the most are downright ugly. Still, even in these Instagram-happy days, there's something about the pull of caviar's slick, beady saline pops or the spongy-soft padding of well-prepared tofu that keeps us coming back for more, visual considerations aside.
Being willing to move beyond beautiful ingredients in favor of flavor is especially important when it comes to a less-than-lovely Galician treasure currently experiencing a groundswell of stateside interest: gooseneck barnacles.
"When we first put them on, we definitely had mixed reviews, mostly because of the aesthetics," says Jamie Bissonnette, co-owner of Toro, the tapas hotspot where the crustacean now frequently graces the menu, selling out every time. "People called them 'dinosaur toes.' "
Indeed, the muscly, gnarled creatures have more in common visually with T. rex appendages than with anything in your neighborhood grocery's seafood case, somehow appearing to be simultaneously chewy and crusty in a small, claw-shaped package.
These looks, though, are deceptive. Gooseneck barnacles (or percebes, as they're known in Spain) have been a sought-after ingredient for centuries, prized not only for their briny, sweet taste and tender texture (like the love child of razor clams and lobster) but also for how difficult they are to obtain.
"Since they only grow in intertidal waters, the place where two riptides meet, [the barnacles] are incredibly dangerous for divers, called percebeiros, to harvest," says sous-chef Nicky Palamaro of Seamus Mullen's Spanish eatery Tertulia. Percebeiros are revered as some of the most fearless hunter-gathers in the culinary world, risking their lives between the crash of wave and rock to hack clusters of barnacle from the sides of cliffs.
The crustacean also has a curious, and confused, history with the Catholic Church. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that a type of bird, the barnacle goose, emerged from gooseneck barnacles — not eggs — and hibernated under the sea during winter. (At the time, the church apparently didn't understand the concept of migration.) In turn, barnacle geese were fair game for eating during Lent, when other meat was off limits. Ultimately, though, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II squashed this myth, noting that there was no part of the barnacle that even remotely appeared to have a bird embryo inside.
As with most storied, difficult-to-acquire foods, the national interest in gooseneck barnacles ebbs and flows in response to the season (they're most popular in warm-weather months and around Christmastime) and to availability. Prices vary depending on the barnacles' place of origin, but they're not cheap. Currently, direct-to-consumer seafood company Mikuni Wild Harvest offers gooseneck barnacles collected off the western coast of Vancouver Island for a whopping $47.95 per pound.
In a way, the clamor for the hard-to-harvest percebes — not unlike rarity-based food items such as the truffle, or, in the Middle Ages, the peacock — goes against today's local-sourcing culinary climate. According to Dr. Paul Freedman, author of Food: The History of Taste, "Now, imported delicacies are less sought-after than local, high-quality ingredients. Seasonal vegetables of some older breed or from a farm linked to a restaurant — Blue Hill, Manresa in Los Gatos [California] — confer more status than French foie gras or Dover sole."
Another barrier to barnacle acceptance: Much like another cult crustacean, crawfish — which require a lot of physical digging and gnawing for little meaty reward — percebes are tricky to eat. "We were originally serving them like you'd get them in Spain, still in the skin so they're kind of peely," says Bissonnette. "And we were finding that guests weren't into it. There's a lot of work going into peeling and eating those little muscles."
Perhaps this is why Tertulia favors a preparation in which they are cooked over an open-fire grill then served simply, on a piece of toast to soak up the salty juices, with a side of garlic aioli. "We like to find a way to make the dish bigger," says Palamaro.
Meanwhile, at Toro, Bissonnette has experimented with preparing the barnacles in any number of creative fashions (including with a Chinese-style black bean sauce) but finds himself returning to the fresh, traditional Spanish style of employing their own juices. Ultimately, it takes just a quick lesson in crustacean dexterity for guests to enjoy them this way. "We clean them then store them in their own liquid and just warm them up and serve them ready-to-eat. We show people that you want to hold it by the little toe-looking part, eat the muscle, and suck. Then people love them 90 percent of the time."
So if goosenecks are so ugly and expensive, why do they sell out every time they — all too briefly — hit a menu? Because, for adventurous first-timers and seasoned barnacle-suckers alike, there's almost no better vehicle by which to taste the sea. As Bissonnette puts it, "Gooseneck barnacles taste like you're somewhere near the freshest ocean and smelling that sea-ness, with the seaweed and algae spray in your face."
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