A Galician delicacy which tastes far better than it looks
You can’t help but question the sanity of the first person who looked at a gooseneck barnacle and thought, ‘yeah, I’ll chip that off the rock, crack it open and slurp out its flesh’. “They are bizarre-looking things,” laughs Peter at Furness Fish and Game, where you’ll find fistfuls of the things attached to a piece of rock, wriggling around like packs of red-lipped snakes. “But we have chefs who come to buy them from us who say they are absolutely to die for.”
While they might look a little, well, terrifying, these primitive crustaceans are the pride of Galicia and other parts of coastal north-west Spain and Portugal, where they often fetch eye-watering prices. And once you discover the dangers that the ‘percebeiros’ (barnacle fishermen, ‘percebes’ being the Spanish name for goose barnacle) are forced to endure to collect them, you can see why—for it’s a dangerous sport.
A knife and a net
“The people who are picking them are at high risk, because while they are not permanently under the water, the barnacles grow on the rocks right by the sea,” explains Leonardo, executive head chef at Brindisa. Teams of percebeiros can be found dismounting boats and going at them knife in one hand, net in the other, all the while risking their lives at the whim of an unexpected wave. The tide must be low and the sea flat for them to stand a chance—but the reward is sweet. “They are highly appreciated for their authentic seafood flavour,” says Leo. If you’ve not tried them before, “they’re very close to razor clams, just a little bit harder in texture” and best cooked in the simplest of ways.
“The classic recipe is to boil them in sea water—if you have the opportunity to cook them this way, it is amazing,” Leo explains. “If you don’t have sea water, put a pan of water on the hob with a lot of coarse salt—roughly half salt, half water—then depending on the quantity, add a bay leaf and peppercorns. Let’s say for half a kilo of barnacles, add half a bay leaf and 10 peppercorns. Once the water starts to boil, introduce the barnacles. Cook them for five to 10 minutes, then refresh them in cold water”—and that, save for breaking open the shells with your thumbs (and a level of dexterity) and twisting the edible inner tube from the shaft, is that. “We do not eat them with sauce or anything else, we have them like edamame beans, popping them out of the shell and into our mouths,” he smiles. “It is as simple as this.”