In Long Beach, New York, I scraped barnacles off the bottom of our rowboat, all the time muttering “ugh, ugh, ugh.” But in Portugal, I ate them for breakfast!
We were at a family reunion this summer in Sintra, Portugal. We and three of our grown children had arrived long before the 4 p.m. check-in time for the farm estate that we had rented for the week and we were hungry.
After driving our van down the mountain through the prettiest villages with white-washed houses on roads with hair-pin turns wide enough for only a bike, we finally found a café that was open at 11 a.m. Happily, it served something other than weak coffee and sweet muffins for breakfast. We had really good omelets with cheese and a so-so one with shrimp.
Little did we know that everything that the kitchen sends out in restaurants in Portugal comes with a price tag. Nothing is complimentary, not even the bread and olives that appear as soon as you order, even at breakfast. So when the waiter — an aspiring actor and writer — announced, “the owner wants you to try these,” we had no idea that we would have to shell out a hefty wad of euros to eat something that we had not ordered nor would we ever have thought to.
The waiter was carrying a bowl crammed with barnacles — black, white and cream colored. They looked almost like the crustaceans that slowed our boat at the end of summer. The young man proceeded to instruct us how to eat them. You snap off their tops — or is that their feet? — and then suck the meat out of the remaining shell as you would a raw clam. In hindsight, it would have appealed much more to us if we had a lemony, garlicky butter sauce for dipping but we were game to eat like the locals. I tried one, not so bad but not so great either. Then another, a bit better. A third, they started to have some gustatory appeal.
Perceves, as they are known, are considered a delicacy in this part of Europe. Divers make dangerous expeditions to scrape the shells off the sides of cliffs that plunge deep into the sea bed. The ones in Sintra at that tiny café at the edge of the ocean and in Lisbon where we later ate at the popular Cervejaria Pinoquio with its entrance aquarium loaded with live fish and crabs were steamed and brought piping hot tableside. There’s an aroma of the sea as the plate is placed in front of you. Briny like lobsters. Snap off the neck and a spray of ocean hits your chest and drips down your hand and your shirt. You need a bib and a finger bowl with this dish, plus a traveler’s stick of Tide.
Barnacles are exotic and their appearance takes some getting used to, no doubt about it. Like snails the first time you plunge into escargots. Or pig’s ears for that matter. I told my best friend about my experience and she said, “Wow, that’s something!” And they’re definitely something to talk about at my next dinner party, but I don’t think I’ll try the ones in Long Beach.