The prickly tale of Charlie and the urchin factory

Take the gonads of a sea urchin. Slurp them down raw. Fish farmers and the leader of the Liberal Democrats hope you like them
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The Independent Online

Tens of thousands of the prickly marine animals are to be cultivated in the Highlands as a luxury food.

Sea urchin gonads, or roe, are already sought after in Paris restaurants and in Japan, where they are used in sushi. But Scottish MPs and seafood farmers are confident their own, home-grown urchins will soon be a familiar feature of British haute cuisine.

The plan is for thousands of the spiny sea hedgehogs to be "grown" on fish farms and sold as a delicacy.

Sea urchins have been found to live comfortably alongside farmed salmon, feeding on leftover fish food and cleaning algae off the sides of cages.

Marine scientists researching the best sea urchins to cultivate for food have already supplied juvenile species to farmers, who are waiting for them to mature.

Each sea urchin has five gonads, which are scooped out by diners and eaten raw.

"Their gonads are the sought-after part. They are a very pretty, star-shaped organ, neither male nor female," said Dr Maeve Kelly, a research scientist at the Scottish Association for Marine Science. "The best Paris restaurants want them, and sea urchin farmers in Ireland are already supplying them. The edible sea urchin market is under-supplied. It's something we are working with the Scottish salmon farmers on."

At Loch Duart fishery, which farms salmon off the coast of Sutherland, in northern Scotland, the plan is to prepare thousands of the creatures ready for sale by next year. The fishery has found that raising sea urchins alongside salmon and edible seaweed has also helped clean the offshore area of algae and waste.

"Sea urchins are omnivores. They clean as they go," the managing director, Nick Joy, explained. "The amounts we have at the moment are not significant; we will have the first significant trial market next summer, and we hope to have tens of thousands the next season. I think we will start off using established markets, but it won't be long before we start looking for a local market.". Sea urchins, which were so named by Aristotle, who described them in his History of Animals, have perfect symmetry. They can inflict a sharp wound if stepped on.

They are prized in Japan, where the edible portion, which has a subtle creamy and salty taste, is known as uni. People tasting the urchins' gonads for the first time have reported a gagging sensation, and the "smoky sea" flavour is regarded as an acquired taste.

The sea urchin has a reputation as an aphrodisiac. It is growing in popularity in New York, and experts believe it is only a matter of time before it becomes an exotic feature of British fusion cuisine.

Mr Kennedy, whose constituency in the Highlands could become a major supplier, is supporting the plan, along with other Scottish MPs.

On a recent visit to a marine laboratory, the Liberal Democrat leader inspected samples of edible sea urchins. Mr Kennedy's spokesman said he "fully supported" the drive to cultivate the urchins on a commercial scale.

Danny Alexander, Liberal Democrat MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, said he believed the "prickly dish" would catch on among discerning diners.

"It is fortunate for the Highlands and Islands' economy that these innovative business ideas are being worked on. It is fantastic for the economy," he said. "This is something British restaurants may want to look at seriously. We have Loch Fyne oysters already; in the future the Argyll sea urchin may have just as a good a culinary reputation."

The Knowledge: How to enjoy a sea urchin

First turn it upside down so the mouth is face up. Cut down the centre so the shell is just connected. Look inside both halves until you spot the yellow stuff. This comprises the gonads, or 'ouroboros'. You can pick them out delicately, but if you're not squeamish, stick your tongue inside and slurp the lot. Just watch out for the spikes.