Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Eating Sea Urchins on the Greek island of Milos







Spike Island

I’d never even seen a spiky sea urchin before, much less eaten one. How would something that looks armed against being eaten taste and more importantly, which bit do you eat? These thoughts occupied me as I watched them slowly moving around inside a plastic bag, pulsing their spikes looking like they were fidgeting to get comfortable. They’d been prised off the seabed by our host Andreas whilst snorkelling during a boat trip off the north coast of the Greek island of Milos. Andreas fitted the cliche of a Greek man I’d assumed existed ever since Shirley Valentine came out. He steered his kaiki (a traditional greek fishing boat), named Perseas, into Pollonia bay to pick us up and hopped onto the quayside clad only in a pair of shorts sporting a deep tan, eyes as clear and blue as the water he would later take us to and exuding a welcoming and relaxed nature. As he steered away from the harbour to show us some of the geological wonders of the smaller neighbouring island of Kimolos, an almost meditative contentment emanated from him. Our journey took us past weird sights; volcanically formed rock cliffs streaked through with rusted iron reds and sulphuric yellows. Lots of money is made by the mining companies who extract the minerals from Milos and the thermal heat from this former volcano still warms some parts of the sea on the south coast; there’s even a restaurant at the resort of Paleohori that cooks its food by burying it in the sand.

Milos is part of the Cyclades group of islands and lies 100 miles away from the massive port of Piraeus in Athens. We’d arrived a day previously by ferry into the handsome port of Adamas but elected to escape North to the quieter town of Pollonia, 12 km away. There’s a cute little beach, lots of cats and a high street that probably numbers a dozen establishments; a small supermarket, a good bakers, a car hire place and several restaurants. If you can hear a bell ringing somewhere about Milos as you read this, its because the Venus de Milo was found here on the island in 1820, swiped by the French and then stuck in the Louvre. The easy-going nature of the Greek islanders may have had something to do with the loss. One can imagine them shrugging their shoulders as if to say ‘If they want it that much, let them have it.’ Whilst there I certainly felt my shoulders drop an inch or two and my usual London operating pace slow up satisfyingly.

Our stop for lunch on the boat trip was at the kind of beach idyllic because of its isolation, hidden by the cliffs until we were about 100 metres away. The only other life we saw during our 2 hour stop was a couple of disinterested goats, who plodded past us away up into the hills as if in a trance. Once Perseas had been anchored in the bay, our group of 10 all launched ourselves whooping into the aquamarine water, the clarity of which was startling. Meanwhile Andreas pootled to the beach in a dinghy loaded up with the grub and set about getting the barbecue going in his capable way. While the marinated pork steaks were sizzling he donned his snorkelling mask, crossed himself 3 times for good hunting luck and went under the water, plastic carrier bag and serious looking knife in hand.

Coming back ashore, he’d also found some moss to surround the urchins with to keep them wet and alive, the idea being I suppose that fresh is best. Once we’d dusted off the meat and washed it down with some wine, Andreas set to work opening them up. Though some people use gloves to hold them whilst doing this and travel guides warn of the dangers of stepping on them and getting the spines stuck in your feet, Andreas (in his manliness) seemed unbothered by gripping them as he stuck the knife in. My girlfriend asked him if it hurt, to which he replied cryptically, ‘This is my hand for this.’ with a shrug of his shoulders. Once the urchin was open and the sea water tipped out, the orange insides were given a quick squirt of lemon and scraped away from the shell with bread. It’s a bit like eating a very good salty fish paste and it tastes good, if you can forget that you’re eating their ovaries. Poor little urchins.



With full bellies and the gentle bobbing of the boat as we headed back to Pollonia, it was easy to give in to the temptation of a snooze as the light on the day faded. After being dropped off at the quay at sunset, we fell into a taverna and idled a couple of hours away getting acquainted with Metaxa, waiting until it felt like the right time to eat (Greeks eat late, from 9.30pm onwards for supper). By the time it came around, we needed the food to soak up some of the booze and a few sardines, a hunk of bread and a Greek salad later, we took a slow stroll back to our lodging, and bed.


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