Scots woo foreign palates with sweet taste of sea urchin

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"Initially the taste is wonderfully sweet, then there's a long aftertaste which someone once compared to hazelnuts with a hint of iodine," says marine biologist Dr Maeve Kelly, writes Nicholas Schoon. "But I can only describe it as sea urchin."

Dr Kelly is heading a Scottish research project into the prospects for ranching the dark, spherical and spiny sea urchins in the waters around Britain. The bit that is eaten is the swollen gonads - eggs and sperm - inside the exterior skeleton.

The pounds 320,000 project, funded by fish farming firms and the Government's Natural Environment Research Council, reaches an important early milestone in the next fortnight when the first batches of UK-reared urchins are exported to France, where buyers will do taste tests.

About 100,000 tons of the sea creatures are eaten each year, mainly in Japan and France. It is a trade worth some pounds 500m a year. The programme began after a Scottish salmon farmer found thousands of sea urchins growing inside a salmon cage when it was brought ashore. The species, Psammechinus miliaris, is smaller than those normally consumed and grows all round the British Isles. Dr Kelly is now concentrating on getting roe of the right colour - bright orange, and with a "creamy but firm" texture.

Recipe for success In North Atlantic Seafood (Penguin), Alan Davidson, the great expert on fish cookery, writes: "The Rev James Wallace, writing in 1688 about Orkney, observed that 'the common people reckon the meat of the Sea Urchin or Ivegars, as they call them, a great Rarity, and use it oft instead of butter'. The practice has died out and Orcadians now call the sea-urchin 'scarriman's heid', scarriman meaning a tramp or street child with unruly, spiky hair.

"Cuisine: Open the urchin (with a coupe-oursin, if you have one, a most satisfactory possession), take out the ovaries and eat them with nothing more than a drop of lemon juice. Or add them to an omelette."