Rise of the Sea Urchin | Science | Smithsonian
Current Issue
October 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

(Mitchell Feinberg)

Rise of the Sea Urchin

In the icy waters off Norway, one intrepid Scot dives deep to satisfy the latest fjord-to-table craze at Europe’s finest restaurants

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

When it comes to their neighbors in Norway, the good people of Denmark and Sweden have a limitless fount of jokes, many of which are reductive and in questionable taste; none of which should, under any circumstance, be repeated.

Here’s one of the funniest:

A Dane, a Swede and a Norwegian are shipwrecked on a desert island. The Dane finds a magic shell, which, when rubbed, entitles each of the castaways to a wish. The Dane says: “I wish to go home to my cozy flat in Copenhagen and relax on my soft sofa beside my sexy girlfriend with a six-pack of beer.” He promptly disappears. The Swede says, “I wish to return to my large and comfortable Stockholm bungalow, with its sleek Ikea furniture.” He vanishes, too. After mulling his options, the Norwegian says,

“I’m terribly lonely now. I wish my two friends were here with me.”

For much of the last decade, Roderick Sloan has been viewed as something of a Norwegian joke. By Norwegians, no less. The 44-year-old émigré Scot makes his home 88 miles north of the Arctic Circle—little more than a cod’s toss from Nordskot (pop. 55), one of Norway’s darkest, bleakest, remotest coastal villages.

Inside the spiky test are five corals of roe, sometimes called tongues—the sea urchin’s wobbly gonads. (Karoline O.A. Pettersen)
Sea urchins with their skin and spines removed. (Jennifer Steen Booher)
The frigid waters north of the Arctic Circle. (Karoline O.A. Pettersen)
Roderick Sloan endures the spring chill on the Big Betty. ( Karoline O.A. Pettersen)
“You start with sea salt, then you get a big iodine hit, and, at the end, a distinctive sweetness that sits in your mouth," says Sloan. (Howard Sooley)
Sloan clutches a pair of green sea urchins, which he plucks from the frigid waters north of the Arctic Circle. (Howard Sooley)
Roderick Sloan prepares for his dive into the frigid Arctic waters of Vestfjorden carrying 65 pounds of scuba gear. (Karoline O.A. Pettersen)
The urchin diver gazes over the waves on what’s for him just another day at the office. (Karoline O.A. Pettersen)
Sloan’s sea urchins are a delicacy featured in the New Nordic cuisine of the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. (Courtesy of Noma )
Sloan displays a sea urchin he plucked from the sandy seafloor off the coast of Norway. (Karoline O.A. Pettersen)

The farm he shares with his wife (Lindis), young sons (names withheld by request) and dog (Sisko, an aged Labrador with bad joints and a worse aroma) spans 500 scraggly acres. The land is speckled with birch and encircled by mountain—lofty, sharp-edged and shaped like dragon’s teeth. It’s an agreeable enough place in what American travel writer Bill Bryson might call a thank-you-God-for-not-making-me-live-here sort of way. “Summer is special in Nordskot,” cracks Christopher Sjuve, an Oslo-based wine blogger. “It’s everyone’s favorite day of the year.”

Sloan embraces the isolation. “I love the tranquility here, you understand,” he says in a soft Scottish burr, rolling his r’s and stretching out his vowels. “I love the clean air and the changes of the seasons. It’s not perfection, but then if life is too perfect, it can be perfectly dull.”

What makes Sloan perfectly risible in the eyes of many is the precarious career he has carved. In weather that would be considered mild only on Neptune, he dives into the icy fjord to gather sea urchins, those wee beasties that look like squash balls encased in pine thistles. Sloan’s aquatic treasure hunts for krakebolle (“crow’s balls” in Norwegian) are as dangerous as they are daring. Waves are often treacherous; squalls, gusty; and storms can appear in an instant. “Roddie swims alone, down to 50 feet deep,” Sjuve observes. “You’ve either got to be drunk or crazy to do what he does.”

Crazy, say the locals. “When I started to harvest urchins in 2002, everyone thought I was bananas,” Sloan says. “They’re not a traditional catch in north Norway.” He means urchins, not bananas. Though plentiful, urchins are not exactly standard fare in Norway, a nation of largely unadventurous eaters who annually consume 48 million frozen pizzas—about 10 per capita. Sloan is practically a cottage industry unto himself. “We’ve got seals and killer whales,” he says, “but I’m the country’s only full-time urchin diver.”

In the brave new world of fine dining, the roe of the humble urchin—a shellfish once cursed as a pest to lobstermen, mocked as “whore’s eggs” and routinely smashed with hammers or tossed overboard as unsalable “bycatch”—is a prized and slurpily lascivious delicacy. Unlike caviar, which is the eggs of fish, the roe of the urchin is its wobbly gonads. Every year more than 100,000 tons of them slide down discerning throats, mainly in France and Japan, where the chunks of salty, grainy custard are known as uni and believed to be an uplifting tonic, if not an aphrodisiac. The Japanese exchange urchins as gifts during New Year celebrations.

Sloan supplies Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, or “Norwegian greens,” to dozens of the most revered restaurants in Europe, from London’s meaty, masculine mecca of English food (St. John) to the 12-seat Fäviken in the wilds of northern Sweden, where chef Magnus Nilsson stalks lingonberries in bearskin with his gun dog, Krut.

Master chefs buzz among themselves about Sloan’s urchins like discoverers of a latter-day Beatles—or, in the case of René Redzepi, beetles. The founder of “New Nordic” cuisine, Redzepi runs Noma, a Copenhagen eatery that Restaurant magazine has judged to be the world’s best in four of the last five years.

Redzepi’s 28-course celebration of local and seasonal ingredients foraged from the woodlands and seashore is designed to demonstrate nature on a plate. He fashions culinary bouquets from wild herbs and edible soil, toasted hay and reindeer moss, live ants and fermented grasshoppers. (“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!” “Yes, and for the next course...”) In one signature dish, raw North Atlantic shrimp are washed up on a “beachscape” of grasses, frozen pebbles and dried-urchin “sand” that showcases the Norwegian green’s murky orange innards. Sloan provides the urchins, which the Danish have dubbed søpindsvin (sea hedgehogs). Redzepi says they’re as luscious as anything he’s ever eaten.

“It’s like Roddie invented a new product, a new culinary sensation,” echoes fellow chef Esben Holmboe Bang, whose Maaemo is the most shimmering of Oslo’s Michelin-starred chow houses. “His Norwegian greens are sweet and tender and you can taste the wilderness in every bite. It’s like you’re making out with the sea.”

***

The night before the greens first appeared on Noma’s menu, a waiter asked, “Where do sea urchins come from?”

Tags
About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus