Costa Brava Sea Urchins:
Hedgehogs of the Sea!

🕔 6 mins (total)
Fresh sea urchins are a local delicacy on the Costa Brava, especially Palafrugell.
Fresh sea urchins are a local delicacy on the Costa Brava, especially in the towns of Palafrugell.

They are known by many names in Catalunya, including garotes, urissos, oriços or garoines, but they are most commonly referred to as eriçons de mar (erizos in Spanish) which literally translates as “sea hedgehogs”, but of course what we are really talking about here are sea urchins.

While they might not look like something suitable for eating with their hedgehog-like spiny outer shell, sea urchins have been consumed throughout the ages by people all over the world. In fact, there are hundreds of species of sea urchin to be found in every ocean and sea, from the shallows to the deep, but only around twenty species are edible. Their life span is typically around 15 years, although some have been known to live as long as 200 years – if we don’t eat them first! In many countries, such as Japan, for example, where you’ll see urchins used in sushi, they are considered a delicacy. (No surprise there; the Japanese do love their seafood after all!)

Costa Brava eriçons

Sea urchins everywhere mostly live among rocks or coral reefs that they can cling onto. The eriçons found here on the Costa Brava are typically deep purple or almost black in colour on the outside, but are found only in relatively small numbers. They are subject to controlled fishing rights, and only professional and licensed shellfish fishermen are allowed to sell them. A shellfish fisherman is known as a mariscador, as opposed to a pescador, a regular fisherman.

A mariscador’s method of fishing sea urchins is to dive, using weights to descend to deeper water if necessary, carrying with him nothing more than a knife to cut them away from the rocks and a net to gather them into. Once the net is full it is attached to a buoy and then, once the mariscador is back on the boat, pulled onboard.

They are fished throughout the winter, but especially between the months of January and March so as not to interfere with their natural reproductive cycle and, therefore, their future population. In fact, the edible part of the eriçon is called the gònada, or gonads, the reproductive sex glands, often mistakenly believed to be the roe, or eggs. This is probably at least part of the reason it is believed by some that eriçons possess aphrodisiacal qualities.

Salvador Dalí is said to have been a big fan of sea urchins, and whenever he spent time on the Costa Brava, he consumed lots of them with pink cava, or so the story goes. It’s probably true, though, since eriçons featured in a number of his works.

A mariscador swimming out to offshore rocks in search of eriçons
A licensed mariscador swimming out to some offshore rocks in search of eriçons
Returning with the day’s catch
Returning to shore with the day’s catch

How to eat “sea hedgehogs”, sorry, we meant sea urchins

Of course, the eriçons must be opened before they can be eaten, and there is a certain knack to doing this the right way. Preparing a sea urchin is something of a specialist task as the edible parts are on one side only. First, the flat underside must be cut away with a special curved knife or scissors (or sometimes with a custom-made mini guillotine). Because of the spines, it’s probably advisable to leave this procedure to the experts, but if you’re attempting it yourself, wearing gloves would be a good idea, at least until you get the hang of it.

Once the flat part is removed and discarded, the urchin is then given a quick dunk in seawater to get rid of the brown, inedible viscera, leaving five orange stripes – the gonads – which you can then scoop out with a spoon, or better still, with a piece of bread or even directly with your tongue. Some purists advise that if you are using a spoon, it shouldn’t be metal, as this can adversely affect the taste.

A haul of sea urchins, ready to be added to the menu
A haul of sea urchins, ready to be added to the menu
Costa Brava sea urchin shells typically range from purple to black
Costa Brava sea urchin shells typically range from purple to black
Click on the above video if you’d like to see how an expert opens a sea hedgehog!
Click on the above video if you’d like to see how an expert opens a sea hedgehog!

While in Italy, they typically toss their urchins with pasta (they would, wouldn’t they!), and the French often use them in omelettes or soufflés; here in Catalunya, they are traditionally eaten raw, often accompanied by botifarra, a typical local type of black sausage and all tendra (“tender garlic”, similar in appearance to scallions – but not to be confused with calçots!), rustic bread, plus a glass (or several!) of white wine or cava. The texture is juicy and soft and has a distinctive sea flavour, as you’d expect. 

Sea urchins have sometimes been paired with truffles with their salty, light, and zingy flavour contrasting with the earthy, heavy, and rich truffle – a different take on “surf ‘n turf” for sure! You might even see urchins served in cava in their shells in some newer and fancier versions.

Where to eat some Costa Brava sea urchins

At this time of year, the place to be for eriçons de mar is definitely Palafrugell and its three seaside villages of Llafranc, Tamariu and Calella de Palafrugell. Long ago, sea urchins were mostly eaten by fishing folk and coastal-dwelling people of modest means. This is no longer the case, and the humble eriçon de mar has since moved up in the world. La Garoinada, an annual culinary seafood festa has been taking place in the aforementioned towns since 1992 and has as its star attraction our delicious sea hedgehog.

This year (2024), it runs from 19 January to 24 March, with just over a dozen participating restaurants across the towns, with the highest number in Calella de Palafrugell. More details below.

As we mentioned at the start, “garoines” is one of the words for sea urchins, but in fact, it is really only around Palafrugell itself that this term is typically used – hence the name of the festival – in the same way that “garotes” is usually only commonly heard further north along the Costa Brava.

Inside each sea urchin there are five orange stripes of deliciousness!
There are five orange stripes of deliciousness inside each sea urchin!

During La Garoinada, participating restaurants offer special menus, priced between €35 and €50, with local D.O. Empordà wine included. White wine would seem like the logical choice to go with seafood, but many locals would argue that a more flavourful red goes better with the strong taste of the urchins. The garoines are usually served as a starter and are followed by some other fish or seafood main dish and a dessert.

Although these special menus are more expensive than a typical menú de día, it is something a bit more special and happens only once annually – and it’s part of local culture… Of course, you can also order them à la carte if you don’t want to go for the whole menu, but either way, reservations are definitely recommended.

In some places, people mark the end of Carnaval and the beginning of Lent with a feast of sea urchins and wine on the beach, but this year, Easter (Setmana Santa) is early, and as a result, so too is Carnaval. Mardi Gras falls on Tuesday [obviously!] 13 February, and La Garoinada in Palafrugell officially ends much later at the end of March. So much for Lent!

La Garoinada, Palafrugell 2024

Check out which restaurants and hotels are participating in this year’s Garoinada in Palafrugell, Llafranc, Tamariu, and Calella de Palafrugell, as well as browse the menus on offer and their prices. Contact details, including telephone numbers, addresses, and websites, are provided, and reservations are definitely recommended. It’s quite an experience!

Enjoy your hedgehogs!

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