I have been hunting for raw sea urchin somewhere outside a sushi bar for quite a long time now. I had an idea I could maybe hit a Greek island to squeeze a flare of lemon onto some juicy urchin slivers – but completely by accident, I found that the place to eat sea urchin in the Mediterranean is a single, tiny, seaside town on the east coast of Puglia.
San Foca seems to be the place where Italians go to retire – or at least own a holiday home. It’s a fishing town with a beach, a couple delis, and a large number of bars where everyone knows your name. Every day except Sunday, the fisherman go out and haul in nets of swordfish, snapper, all manner of shellfish and the round, spiny urchins that are called ‘ricci di mare’ – riches of the sea – in this part of the world.
You order them by the dozens – raw, just opened, and heaped onto a tray with nothing but a teaspoon and a serious appreciation for its delicate musk served as is.
Here I am with my 20. It wasn’t enough.
I noticed the more orange the sea urchin, the sweeter and lighter its flavour. The browner varieties were saltier and had a heavier scent of the sea. You should definitely mop up the last bits with the proffered bread.
Unlike sea urchin sashimi in Japan, which is largely sourced from Korea and the US, Mediterranean sea urchin is much smaller, the five or so edible ‘arms’ much slenderer. The way it’s eaten out here in San Foca means that it’s guaranteed fresh, more so than too many sushi bars would be able to.
Each day’s catch is finished on the day, usually before 3pm. People start trickling into the open-air eateries around noon, and it’s all about getting platters of sea urchin and shellfish, accompanied by sides like mixed salads, french fries and of course, half-liters or liters of the house wines. Along with sea urchin, this is where you eat mussels, clams, giant clams and some of the fattest oysters I’ve ever seen – all raw. It’s good honest eating that’s all about the food – and that’s my favourite sort of ambience.
If you head out to Puglia, fly into Brindisi and drive south along the coast. San Foca is about an hour and a half’s drive – and two waterside restaurants that offer super fresh sea urchin are right next to each other by the sea: Al Rifugio di Capitan and Sfizi Di Mare