In early April 2015, I did my first WorkAway in the southern Italian region, Puglia. Discussing food with my host we quickly agreed in our passion for fresh seafood. A few months before, I had seen the BBC show Great railway journeys, which spend a few episodes in exactly the region I was just finding myself in. One of the local food items the show covered were sea urchin or, as it is called in Italy, ricci*. In the segment, the host simply went to the shore, collected the ricci in the flat waters and ate them on the spot.
My Puglia host nodded and said, that there were, in fact, a few restaurants over by the coast that served ricci. This not being the season, many of them were shut at the moment but she had a favorite joint which was open year round. She said: “How about I take you there for your birthday?”
I agreed and after having spent the morning exploring Alberobello and Locorotondo we turned towards the coast.
South of Fasano and after racing along the rolling April sea for ten minutes, past white holiday complexes and large restaurants, we found a container, made of metal and wood and enlarged by tent walls that were flapping in the wind. It couldn’t have been closer to the sea.
A sign by the door announced: “Ricci – 40ct a piece”.
When it was my turn to order I was a bit irritated by my host’s order of tiger shrimps and her offer to “pay half my bill”. That’s not my idea of being “taken out for my birthday”… But I didn’t want to ruin the mood, thanked her and proceeded to order five ricci with a local beer.
They came on a plate, opened, sitting on their inch-long spikes, revealing the five orange gonad lines. I could lead you to believe that these are just the animal’s eggs (roe) but really these are the reproductive organs of either the females or the male sea urchins.
Full of curiosity, I started scraping the mass of my first ricci out of a shell smaller than the palm of my hand.
There was a slight taste of the sea, not fishy more salty and even nutty. The latter might just have been because of the unusual consistency that wasn’t like caviar (or roe) at all but more like a dense mousse or raw liver.
I didn’t quite feel “in heaven” as I had when I had eaten my first oyster a few months before. But I enjoyed my birthday treat and ordered another handful.