Barnacles, those crusty little things that get stuck on the bottom of boats, are all the rage in Portuguese kitchens.
I see the light now and say this with a heavy heart: Salmon is a basic bitch. In terms of the seafood paradise that is Portugal, there is one particularly strange—yet delicious—type of shellfish that people cannot get enough of around here: percebes, or goose barnacles. Yes, barnacles, those weird little things that grow on rocks and on the hulls of old ships. The first time I had these, I thought I was going to have to force down something that looked like arthritic parrot claws. Once you break it open by snapping the top off to the side, though, there's this phallic-looking tiny pink barnacle inside. It's reminiscent of a mildly briny oyster, but tastes like heaven.
Goose barnacles aren't farmed; they have to be harvested by local fisherman, a process quite dangerous because of how the barnacles grow: on large, slippery boulders jutting out into the ocean, continually pummeled by waves. In Portugal, percebes sell anywhere from 20 euros/kilo to 125 euros/kilo. Fishermen often climb down onto jagged rocks with the help of a rope, to chisel away the crusty critters off the rocks in a rhythm timed between the crashing waves. The other option is to dive deep, and pray that they don't get pulverized in the rocks. It's the worst.
In order to get a better understanding of the crazy shit that's involved in harvesting these weird sea creatures, I headed over to the fish market in Portimão on the southern Algarve coast and met Jody Lot, a percebes fisherman who also happens to be the world champion of spear fishing. He's also a professionally trained chef who's in the process of opening up a restaurant in The Algarve. I sat down with him over a pint of beer to talk about the dangers of free-diving and the secrets of percebe harvesting in Portugal.
MUNCHIES: How did you get into fishing? Jody Lot: One day I was at the beach with my parents and my father was like "Let's go have a dive," you know, with the goggles. I was really scared. I didn't want to. He hit me and was like, "Get in the water!" Ever since then, I was hooked on the sea. I already had a passion for fishing and then started to develop one for diving. And then I kept up diving and started competing and started being able to live off it. Catch fish, sell fish; gather shellfish, sell shellfish. Ever since then, I haven't stopped.
Wow. Why did you start to harvest percebes? If you live off the sea, you really have to learn how to be able to make money off the sea. Percebes are a really reliable way to make money on the coast because they're quite expensive for the Portuguese, and everybody loves them and everybody eats them.
When is the best season to harvest them? You can't harvest them from September to December, but on a daily basis, I can only catch them when the sea is very calm. There are two ways of harvesting percebes: when the tide is low, you climb down on the rocks and hang with ropes to gather them. Diving is the second option—when I harvest them this way, I find ones that are a little bigger. You can only harvest them when the tide is up in free-diving, the exact opposite approach from the rocks with the ropes method.
How deep do you have to dive when the tide is high? I usually have to dive between one or two meters, but the deepest I've harvested them is around seven meters. You go into the caves and you dive down between the cracks in the rocks while the waves come crashing in. You have to carefully hold yourself between the rocks. A lot of the time they are hiding in the big crevasses of the rocks. You have to be careful when you cut them, because you want to cut it clean.
So how long can you hold your breath? Normally if I'm diving in the sea, around three minutes and then some. My record, (in a swimming pool) is four minutes and 46 seconds. It's just natural training from working.
I know moray eels like to hang around the rocks here. Do you encounter them when you're out diving? Yeah, that happens often. When I'm trying to chisel the percebes off the rock—right when it's almost off—a fish comes by and quickly steals them [laughs]. They're really territorial.
Evil little fish. Have you ever really hurt yourself doing this? Oh yeah, of course. Sometimes I get stuck between the rocks with my flippers and I have to try and get them off my feet and get back up to water, almost running out of air in the process. Sometimes the waves and tide pull me out and I get thrown against the rocks. I almost broke my arm once.
Good god. It seems like there's a pretty high demand for them around here. When they are big, you can always sell them. When they are small and the sea has been calm for too long—maybe a week or more—the market gets flooded because they are easier to harvest when the water is calm.
Is there a time of the year when they taste better? In the winter, the percebes you catch in shallow water are better. In summertime, the ones caught in deeper waters are better because they grow differently.
What's the best part of Portugal for percebes? The Sagres coast and Peniche, where there are really big waves because there are more plankton there. The plankton give them a really good taste.
Interesting. So do you have any tricks or things you look out for when scouting a good spot to dive for them? You have to look for where the rocks that are jutting out of the water are further out at sea. You have to look for where there are bigger waves. Normally, those are the places where percebes grow bigger. You also want to find a rock that has certain types of cracks in them because that could mean that percebes are there. You have to have a local knowledge of the region and the area to find the better spots.
So is it territorial when it comes to harvesting percebes then? Yes, you have a lot of rivalry around here. People are careful to not let anyone know their little spots they always go to. Because to harvest the percebes, you have to have a license. Normally, they only give licenses to locals in the west coast. There are only about 90 licenses given, which is very small.
Is there a problem with people who don't actually have a license to harvest doing it anyway? Yes, our country is in crisis and people need to put food on the table. There are a lot of people who live off the sea, and they see harvesting percebes as a good way to make some money, so they are always running from the police.
When you harvest, who do you normally sell to? At the market, to restaurants, to privately to people who call me and are like, "If the sea is good next week can you get me some percebes?"
You're a chef, too. What's the best way to cook them? If you cook it the simple way—by boiling them—that's always going to be the best. They have such a good natural taste and if you mix it with other things you're going to destroy it.
Now I'm hungry. Thanks for the time, Jody!