Newspaper article International New York Times

Scraping for a Sea Delicacy and a Meager Living in Spain

Newspaper article International New York Times

Scraping for a Sea Delicacy and a Meager Living in Spain

Article excerpt

People who live along the rocky Galician coastline of Spain must fight poachers and dangerous conditions in the hunt for barnacles.

Roberto Mahia, 44, was leaning against his car waiting for the sun to rise before pulling on the frayed wet suit at his feet when two vehicles pulled up not far away.

"Those are poachers," Mr. Mahia declared, staring hard in the direction of their headlights. "We know those cars."

On this morning, however, there would be no confrontation. The poachers soon moved on, apparently unwilling to tangle with Mr. Mahia and the other men gathered here who were trained and licensed to scramble among the crashing waves of the rocky Galician coastline in the country's northwest corner, prying loose and collecting a rare prize for epicures -- gooseneck barnacles.

The work has always been dangerous. All the men waiting for daybreak had scars to show. Avelino Mosteiro, 54, once got 36 stitches in his thigh. On another occasion, he got 18 stitches under his arm. But the work also used to be highly paid before the economic crisis, when restaurants clamored for the rare crustaceans.

These days, however, the men and women who do this for a living say it is hard to make ends meet. Certainly, there are fewer Europeans able to afford expensive treats of any kind.

But worse, there are the poachers, many of them out-of-work citizens, trying to make money any way they can. Their scavenging brings prices down further and depletes the area of barnacles, forcing the licensed collectors to work in more remote and difficult areas, often for a poorer haul.

"Fifteen days ago, we were on those rocks," Mr. Mahia said, pointing out a jagged outcropping in the distance. "Two of us were legal collectors, and 11 were poachers."

In the heady days before Spain's economic crisis, barnacle collectors, many who learned the art of dodging waves from their parents, could earn more than $800 in a few hours. But on a recent morning the men here had collected only four or five pounds of barnacles each, most of them small and of less than ideal quality. Perhaps, they said, they could get $135 for them, maybe less.

In the past, the men said, they would not even have tried to go out on a day with such choppy seas. But lately, they cannot afford to let any opportunity go by.

The barnacles, known as percebes in Spanish, can be collected only under certain conditions, including the point in the lunar cycle when tides are lowest.

Along the coast here, some restaurants offer barnacles for as much as $80 a serving. In Madrid, the price can be much higher. Cooking them is simple. They are generally boiled for just a few minutes. Aficionados compare them to oysters, not for their texture, which is chewier, but for their subtle sea taste.

Spanish officials agree that the unemployment rate has prompted more and more untrained people to take their chances in the rocky inlets here, occasionally paying with their lives. …

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