Friday, 13 July 2012

Collecting sea urchins on Inis Mean

I'm sure you could count the number of restaurants in Ireland easily on one hand that offer sea urchins on the menu - Ballymaloe features them occasionally when they come up from West Cork.

I adore sea urchins but rarely get the opportunity to feast on them so I was thrilled to bits to see them right on the top of the the dinner menu at Inis Mean suites on the Aran island with the proviso (order 24 hours ahead).

The restaurant with just five rooms owned by Ruari and Marie Therese de Blacam and is one of the hottest foodie addresses in Ireland right now. We love it for a ton of reasons not least that dinner starts with a little bowl of freshly picked periwinkles. How about that - not everyone's cup of tea but it gave me a oops in my tummie - what ever turns you on!

I'm an enthusiastic forager both on land and in the woods and on the sea shore but I've never known how to find sea urchins so I ordered them for the following night on the proviso that I could come with Ruari when he was collecting them. What an experience, we wound our way down to the seashore along the narrow botharins until we came to Tra Teacht. From there we scrambled over jagged boulders, limestone karst, round algae covered stones, slippery seaweed and fossils until we came to some rockpools exposed only during the spring tides a couple of times a year. Ruari waded in in his wellies and prized them out of their little nests with a chisel.

I kept thinking how the little sea urchins were quietly conjugating in their natural habitat one moment and seconds later they were my dinner!

So how do you go about eating a sea urchin? Well, pick it up, hold it firmly with the mouth upwards, tap around in a circle with the bowl of a teaspoon until you have cracked enough of the hard shell to lift out the ? and made a opening large enough to scoop out the contents. Inside there will be five pieces of orange coral and other gunge all of which is delicious. Some people like to squeeze in a couple of drops of lemon juice but I love the fresh briny tasting coral on it's own.

We sat on the seashore watching the pollock jumping, feasting on sea urchins and the Morrocan chickpea stew in the picnic which had been delivered to our bedroom earlier in cute littleThermos flasks with a spoon tucked inside the lid. (Just what I need for my travel survival kit).

Later we went fishing with Turlough, Ruari's Dad, we were totally hopeless but he caught 10 or 15 mackerel, four and five at a time, I also love fresh mackerel so Ruari prepared sashimi with a ginger and sesame marinade and some spring onions, it was brilliantly good , in fact it was one of the most memorable things I've eaten all year.

Everyone speaks Irish on Inis Mean, the least visited of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. It can be reached by plane or ferry and is truly a world apart with one of my favourite places to stay anywhere in the world.

The stone walls on Inis Mean are a homage to the local stone masons
The cliffs on Inis Mean
Ruari de Blacam prising sea urchins from the rocks

Sea urchins... before my picnic

Cranesbill, salad burnett, valerian...

Inis Mean - cattle grazing contentedly on beautiful pasture full of wild flowers
Ruari served us this mackerel sashimi with ginger and sesame dressing - it was simply sublime


  1. I have never eaten a sea urchin or been to Inis Mean... should at least do one on my next visit to Ireland! Would need to bring my mother with me as she was from Donegal and speaks Irish! The mackerel sashimi looks delicious!

  2. Beautiful part of the world. I went to Inis Meain many decades ago when the only way visitors could reach it was paying locals to row from Inis Oirr in a currach. Scary and exciting especially when a) they didn't swim and b) I didn't swim! We camped there a few days. Fantastic. A couple of the older women still wore the traditional skirts as they sat outside preparing veg for dinner. I think we were the only visitors on the island, no dining out options then. Instead we collected bairneachs. Not quite the same but tasty too!

  3. Such a lovely part of Ireland that's worth visiting .Definitely true of Dublin restaurants you could count the restaurants on one hand that offer urchins. Great article

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