Scotland cashes in on growing taste for urchins

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They look like a cross between a squash ball and a hedgehog and bear a name as unprepossessing as could be, but sea urchins are rapidly becoming one of Scotland's most lucrative exports with a culinary appeal to rival even that of caviar.

They look like a cross between a squash ball and a hedgehog and bear a name as unprepossessing as could be, but sea urchins are rapidly becoming one of Scotland's most lucrative exports with a culinary appeal to rival even that of caviar.

As stocks of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea fall near to extinction levels, the roe of the sea urchin – the edible portion inside the shell – is now a recognised substitute for caviar on the menus of high-class restaurants with a basic 100g serving selling for at least £10.

In the deep-sea lochs of north-west Sutherland, fish farmers and scientists have discovered new breeding techniques to cultivate the common spiky green urchin in sufficient sustainable quantities to cash in on the demand for the dish. The international market for urchin products is now estimated to be worth more than £200m a year.

Currently, the principal exporters of sea urchins are the United States, Chile, Korea, Iceland and Norway. The biggest markets are Japan, where the animals are considered a traditional delicacy – often exchanged as a gift during the New Year celebrations; France and Spain, where they are called erizos de mar, hedgehogs of the sea.

Andrew Bing, sales director of Loch Duart Ltd in north-west Sutherland, which has been helping to pioneer the commercial cultivation of sea urchins in Scotland, said: "There is a huge market in Europe and our aim is to grow about 100,000 urchins a year by 2003 for customers in France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and the emerging UK market. They taste a bit like oysters and, as the UK seafood market becomes increasingly sophisticated with a growing wealth of ethnic restaurants specialising in Japanese and Mediterranean cuisine, there is greater demand.

"It may be a rarity at the moment in the UK, not least because when you tell people they are eating the animal's gonads they tend to take a step back, but we have had a huge amount of interest from our customers, which suggests that urchins could soon be a popular sight on many menus."

With a creamy taste, including a hint of iodine, urchins have been considered a delicacy since Roman times. Until about 100 years ago they were a common food source for coastal communities around Britain.

Ever since the French exhausted their stocks in the 1970s, and native Irish stocks followed in the Eighties, the price of urchins has risen drastically and Scottish fish farmers have been looking for a way to cash in. Spiky green sea urchins ( Psamm echinus miliaris) still grow in abundance in sheltered bays around Scotland but, until now, they have been considered too small to be commercially viable.

However, after six years of research, scientists from the government-funded marine laboratory at Dunstaffnage, near Oban, have developed ways of breeding urchins in sufficient numbers to sell on to fish farms as a complement to their existing stocks of salmon.

Research into the life and needs of the sea urchins has revealed that they thrive on the high-protein pellets fed to farmed salmon.

Dr Maeve Kelly, the marine biologist leading the research at Dunstaffnage, said: "The joy of cultivating urchins alongside salmon is that they feed off the salmon food pellets which the fish might have missed. They are an extra layer to scoop up any potential loss of salmon food and are an additional crop for the farmer.

"We have two common species of sea urchins around Scotland. There is the very big one, which is the size of a grapefruit and is pink or red – Echinus esculentus. But the trouble with them is that they are far too big for what the market place wants and the flavour is not so popular in Europe.

"The species we are focusing on is the smaller one, Psamm echinus miliaris, which is about the size of a squash ball and is usually green," she added.

The roe, which is similar to caviar, is much sweeter and is a more appealing colour, much closer to what the continental market wants. In the wild this species is more usually found in sheltered areas and quite dense populations can be found occurring naturally in the Scottish sea lochs.

Dr Kelly said: "Environmentally and economically it makes good sense to cultivate them commercially. This is the way ahead for fish farming. It's a more balanced approach to managing Scotland's aquaculture."

How to eat a sea urchin

The urchin is cut around the middle and the roe is scooped out of the shell with a spoon. It is eaten raw, much like caviar (perhaps with a little lemon juice added) and accompanied by French bread. Or alternatively:

Sea Urchins in wine sauce

20-30 sea urchins; 2 tsp olive oil; 1/2 pint fish stock; 2 tbsp sweet white wine; dash of ground pepper

In a pan, combine olive oil, stock, and wine. Add a very small quantity of pepper. Bring to the boil, then simmer. Remove edible parts of the sea urchins and add to the pan. Simmer for five minutes. When cooked, remove from the sauce, sprinkle with pepper and serve.

Sea Eggs 'à la coque' (Serves four)

16 sea eggs/urchins; eight freshly laid eggs; 100g salted butter; salt, pepper from the mill; wholemeal or country bread

To open the sea eggs, hold them in a kitchen cloth and introduce the point of a scissors into the soft part surrounding the "mouth" on the top of the egg. Gently cut away about 1/3 of the shell to form a circular opening. Remove the tongues of coral with a teaspoon and reserve in a bowl. Pre-heat the oven to 240C. Select the eight best shells, rinse and clean thoroughly and garnish with the tongues of coral. Break an egg into each shell, season with salt and pepper, and add a small knob of butter. Cook for eight to 10 minutes (the whites should still be slightly milky and the yolks runny). Serve these stunning "soft-boiled" eggs with fingers of toasted wholemeal or country bread lightly spread with salted butter. A good farmhouse butter will set off wonderfully the subtle flavour of these sea eggs à la coque.