It's pitch-dark when we set out from the small port of Sagres towards the open sea, our boat cutting the gentle waves into the fog and the claustrophobic greyness. It’s August in south Portugal, but it feels more like winter in the Nordics. An Atlantic breeze sprays sea mist in our faces, keeping us awake instead of coffee, while the rising sun struggles to penetrate the fog. The boat slows as it approaches a mass of rock jutting from the ocean. Somewhere above us is the lighthouse with its barely-visible rotating light.
We reach Cabo de São Vicente, Cape St. Vincent. The south-westernmost point of Portugal and mainland Europe, it was sacred ground back in Neolithic times, as it remained for ancient Greeks and Romans. It’s a magical place where people once believed the sun sank, hissing into the ocean, marking the edge of their world. In many ways it still does.
‘Letzte Bratwurst vor Amerika’ (The last bratwurst before America), proclaims a tacky stand in front of Sagres fortress. It has a gigantic sausage on top of it, giving passersby a flirtatious wink. But we’re not here for the meat, we’re out hunting for a different kind of protein. Hiding in cracks and crevices, stuck on reefs and the cliff-foot are percebes or goose barnacles.
There’s a wooden boat anchored in the Fogo de Vento (Wind Fire) cove. A rope stretches from its stern all the way to the rugged cliff face. The goose barnacle harvester or percebeiro is almost invisible. A slender wetsuit-clad figure reappears like a ghost out of the thick patches of fog, foam and crashing waves. Then we see another one climbing down the cliff like a spider in search of its prey. It’s an eerie sight.
The percebes fishermen are skilled, tanned, tough as nails, and slightly suicidal, climbing steep ledges and descending into cracks to chip the tasty crustaceans from the slippery rocks as the waves pummel them. It’s more like an adrenalin sport than fishing; a way of life in this part of Portugal, and in the north of Spain, from the Basque country to Galicia, where they harvest the bulk of it, and those of highest quality.
The colder the sea, and the bigger the waves, the better, because of the plankton and oxygen. For harvesters that means a constant balancing act of outmanoeuvring the sea. Trying to chisel away the crustaceans with their arrilhadas (sticks with a wedge-like blade) before the next wave hits – whether they are descending towards them with ropes at low tide or diving in at high tide.
Do they ever fear for their lives, I ask? “All the time. You should ask me when am I not afraid,” laughs Carlos Duarte, one of the local fisherman that makes a big chunk of his earnings from selling barnacles.
“Usually I don’t use the boat, which makes it somehow more accessible. I prefer to have my feet on the land and climb down the rocks, which sometimes brings a few surprises. Slippery rocks or the sea being a bit bigger than expected, it happens often that the safest way - though it doesn’t sound like it - is to jump into the water. Then the challenge comes. Because jumping in is the easiest, the hard part is to be able to grab myself to the rocks again,” he explains.
Every year there are casualties among percebeiros. Men who aren’t able to find a grip in time. Men who get pulverised by the sheer force of the waves. Men who drown getting stuck between rocks. Is that part of the goose barnacles allure, I ask, the risk factor?
“Percebes are a way of life, yes, partially the adrenaline that is involved in getting it, but for me it all comes together along with the fact that I love seafood and this connection I have with the sea. The feeling you get when you come back home with a good catch. The pride. And I’m talking about the big ones, ‘pinhas’ (pine cones), the ones you get during big tides when the sea recedes so much it uncovers the rocks not reachable otherwise. And you go home happy,” smiles Duarte. “I prefer quality to quantity. I rather harvest less, but really good ones, bigger, succulent and tastier.”
In these coastal communities along the Iberian Peninsula, making money from the sea is an essential skill. And barnacles are an extremely good and reliable source of income since they fetch much more money than fish or other shellfish. They sell anywhere from 20 to 120 euros per kilo, depending on size and quality. There’s a limit to 20 kilos per day and a moratorium on harvesting in certain months, depending on the region.
And yes, you can make a living solely as a percebeiro. A good living with roughly 2 hours of work per day. But you need a license for it, which also means it attracts poachers that have regular run-ins with the police. “Stop filming, put your camera down,” commands our captain in a suddenly stern voice, as we sail past one of these poacher boats with men shouting in Portuguese and shooting hostile glances at us. Ok, I feel that adrenaline now.
My co-passenger is Hans Neuner, the head chef at two-Michelin-star Ocean restaurant in Vila Vita Parc, a luxury resort on the Algarve coast. He laughs at me and hands me a cluster of freshly harvested barnacles, extraterrestrial looking creatures, something between a dinosaur foot and a deformed bird claw. There’s a phallic casing where the succulent meat hides when you crack it open by snapping the top off. Sucking on a raw barnacle is like inhaling the sea, it’s pure, intense, primal, but with a delicate roundness to it.
For Austrian-born Neuner, the allure of barnacles lies in the intensity of their flavour, in the potential they have as an ingredient and in their rarity. “What really adds extra value to them is the fact that they are so rare. We are only able to have them two or three months a year, this makes them a super high-end ingredient, like white truffles. During that period you just want to use it as much as possible,” he says.
“I honestly thought that the first person who ate them must have been someone really hungry,” muses Ángel León from three-Michelin-star Aponiente restaurant in Puerto de Santa Maria in the south of Spain. “For me, everything that comes from the sea attracts me. I have no squeamishness when it comes to sea produce. And percebes are a real delicacy, a PRODUCT - with capital letters.”
“The beauty is in the rocks where they live, beaten by force and with all the purity and freshness of the sea. The beauty is in the percebeiros and how they harvest them, how incredibly difficult it is, and you can see that in their faces and their stories. The beauty is in its magical texture and its powerful flavour that takes you to the place where they live... edible landscape,” says chef Javier Olleros from Culler de Pau restaurant (one Michelin star) in Galicia, for whom sea culture has always been a part of life.
“For us it’s like the best sea bite. Forget the algae, they don’t have texture. Percebes are the perfect mix of glamour, flavour and texture we can obtain in our sea,” reflects Iñaki Bolumburu, Basque chef and former sous-chef of Nerua in Bilbao.
Chefs all over Spain and Portugal are infatuated with barnacles, usually keeping it super simple, just boiled, served lukewarm, paying respect to the purity of this delicate product and reigning in their own creative egos.
“I appreciate the simple authenticity of the products, not adding too much to distract its flavour and value. Warm, good size and fresh is the perfect combination for percebes,” says Ángel León, who in Aponiente serves them in front of the guest using his invention - living salt that crystallises, thus ‘cooking’ them a la minute. “It’s magical.”
“When Ferran Adria visited our place for a workshop he asked me if I knew who was the first chef who did a dish with barnacles, because up to then they were just boiling them. I told him I didn't know and he said it was him and that he almost had to leave Spain for doing such thing,” laughs Olleros, who at Culler de Pau put the barnacles on the menu with turbot roe and steamed halophilic plants.
Neuner, on the other hand, perhaps as someone not being raised with the percebes rulebook, isn’t afraid to play around with them, constantly finding new ways to use them in a dish, like in a watermelon gazpacho. “Their value isn’t about being a challenge. On the contrary, it is for the uncountable ways that it allows you to work with it. It’s an ingredient that challenges your creativity.”