I don’t remember who advised us that barnacles were a Portuguese delicacy, but if you tell the Glamores about a wacky food you can count on us to taste it. We announced our intention to feast on barnacles to anyone in the Tiny Kingdom who asked about our trip, and we speculated about barnacles the whole week before we left. We were rushed leaving and I never had time to google them and see what they actually looked like, or how to cook and eat them. All we knew was that in Portuguese they were called percebes.
We were out walking one day and saw a restaurant with beautiful seafood in the window. I glimpsed a sign that said “PERCEBES” in fat black scrawl. We’d found the exotic food we’d been seeking, and we rushed over and beheld a huge bowl of barnacles.
Here’s what the barnacles looked like up close:
We pressed our noses against the restaurant window and courageously debated proper barnacle-eating procedure. Porter advocated starting at the pointy part and crunching down the entire length of the animal to the rock. Bill thought it best to pop the whole crustacean into your mouth and swallow fast. Drew, ever cautious, recommended dissecting the shell lengthwise and eating whatever we found inside. Finn wondered what condiments went with them. I began to doubt whether the creatures could be eaten at all. The barnacles were interesting to look at but as a potential foodstuff they were exceedingly mysterious.
“Should we go in and order some?” I asked.
The consensus was that we’d rather have some ice cream. We’ve had a lot of practice eating ice cream in Alabama so eating it in Portugal didn’t seem nearly as daunting as facing a plateful of unfamiliar seafood.
Later in the week Drew and I had a cooking class scheduled, and the whole family went to the market and the grocery store, where we saw barnacles for sale.
To be so ugly, they certainly were expensive, so once our chef assured us that they were indeed delicious and easy to cook, we bought only half a kilo.
Here’s how our barnacles looked when we got them home:
We boiled some water, added a lot of salt, and threw the barnacles in. We cooked them until the water returned to the boil, and perhaps for a minute after that.
We drained them and poured them into a bowl.
Then we drank some wine while we got our nerve up to eat them.
It turns out that we were all wrong about barnacle eating technique. Actually, you hold the rock (or hind end if there is no rock) with one hand, and pull the pointy white part out with the other hand.
A smaller, rubbery tube emerges from the outer shaft, and that is what you eat. If I were reviewing it for Gourmet, I’d describe it as “having the texture of a snail, with a briny aftertaste.” Bill said it was more like eating a warm rubber band that has soaked in the ocean for four to five years. Much to Finn’s dismay, there were no condiments involved, although I could see how some lemon-butter sauce would be a welcome addition.
But eating them was what we were there for, and eat them we did. Or at least Drew and I did. We pulled and sucked and chewed until all the barnacles were gone.
(Click to enlarge: you can compare the barnacles that have been eaten on the left with those that have not, on the right).
Upon our return from Lisbon, Drew told everyone that his favorite part of the adventure was eating barnacles. People started asking what barnacles were, exactly, and I did some research.
Big mistake. If I’d known then what I know now about barnacles, I never would have put them in my mouth, although I probably would have encouraged the boys to eat them to see what happened.
The ThinkQuest site advised me that
Barnacles are crustaceans that have jointed legs and shells of connected overlapping plates. Instead of crawling after food, they glue themselves to rocks, ships, pilings, abalones, and maybe even whales to wait for food to wash by. When barnacles are under water or when a wave washes over them, they reach out little feathery barbed legs to strain out plankton and absorb oxygen.
A barnacle’s fertilized eggs hatch into larva, then they leave the parents’ shells. They spend their youth swimming. After many molts they settle down to adulthood, held permanently by one of the world’s strongest known natural adhesives.
I think the pink things in the upper left corner are the “feathery barbed legs.”
The pointy white part is properly called the capitulum and contains the barnacle’s mouth, legs, head, and most of its reproductive system.
One article noted, “Barnacles are usually found in groups, which can sometimes consist of thousands of animals. Settling near other barnacles of the same species ensures that a barnacle can reproduce, as the barnacle penis can extend only about ten times its body height to fertilise another barnacle’s eggs.”
This was written by the Reef Education Network, and I would venture a guess that the author was a man with a hangup about his own organ. At any rate, it was reassuring to learn that the barnacle’s long schlong was in the capitulum which we did not eat. Thank God for small favors.
Reading about the part we did consume wasn’t comforting. The tube is called a peduncle and contains muscles and the ovaries, which are composed of “numerous, curled yellow tubules which ultimately connect to an oviduct extending to the female gonopore.”* That doesn’t sound very appetizing.
Maybe this will make your mouth water: “The peduncle… is a flexible, contractile stalk that attaches the barnacle to floating objects.”**
My advice for anyone eating unusual food is to watch someone else eat it first, and wait a moment for signs of distress. If all is well, proceed with caution.
My mom used to tell me not to play with my food, and I say: Don’t google it either.
*Thanks to Richard Fox at Lander University for providing too much information.
**The Marine Life Information Network for Britain and Ireland added this appetizing description.