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(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

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“They grow on trees,” said another waiter, helpfully. Which even by Scandinavian standards wasn’t much of a comeback. It so happens that urchins can be found in almost every major marine habitat from the poles to the Equator, and from shallow inlets to depths of more than 17,000 feet. Sloan mostly targets exposed reefs with rich forests of kelp, which urchins eat ravenously.

At dawn on this brutal spring morning, Sloan and his one-man crew—a Frenchman who answers to J.C.—clamber onto a red polar work boat he’s christened Big Betty. Out to sea, a white-tailed eagle is wheeling and, beyond that, to the northwest, you can see the lumpy peninsula jutting toward the Lofoten Islands. Under an immense sky (sea clear, light swell) Big Betty putters along until reaching a craggy cove, where Sloan spies the familiar dark shadows. He zips up his dry suit, yanks on rubber gloves and straps on 65 pounds of scuba gear. Plopping backward into the water, Sloan shimmies through dense clusters of seaweed, propelled by the surge of each wave.

Urchins have hundreds of adhesive tube feet and move over the sandy seafloor at a fairly leisurely pace. Sloan collects them with diligence and a certain tenderness, placing the prickly krakebolle one by one into the mesh sacks that flutter in his wake. After 30 minutes he surfaces through the surf, and is quickly hauled onto the deck by J.C., who then sorts the urchins according to color, size and condition. A typical daily haul is between 200 and 300 pounds.

Sloan’s frozen lips are the same pale blue as the water; his breathing is so labored he can barely speak. “Welcome to my office,” he says at last. “This is a magic place to be. Every day I feel like I’m parachuting into the Amazon jungle, without the piranhas. I have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s quite exciting, but it can be terrifying as well.”

He smiles gently. Sloan is an engagingly modest, gruff and diffident fellow with an untamed beard and a sharp sense of humor—in three languages. “I’m quite a sane guy,” he says, “but I’m a bit mad, too.” He’s never bothered to pry out the urchin spike his right thumb has harbored since 2004. “The first year it’s interesting. After that, it becomes part of you.”

The English writer P. G. Wodehouse wrote that it’s never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine. Though Sloan has a copious supply of inner sunshine, he holds strong opinions—about politicians, whaling, the sustainable and ethical consumption of fish, the 1970s TV spy show “The Man From Atlantis” (which he loves), Nordic mosquitoes (hates), the medicinal value of periwinkles—and he doesn’t hesitate to express them. If he invites you to spend a day aboard Big Betty, then you’ve passed some very stringent, very idiosyncratic test of character.

At this moment he’s standing astride Betty’s stern, holding forth on the perils of his profession. He recalls a five-hour battle through 20-foot waves to get his first tiny boat the final kilometer home. (“If you steer the wrong way, you die. It’s as simple as that.”) He compares disentangling himself from a clump of underwater kelp to squeezing through a hawthorn hedge. He describes being flung into a churning washing machine of surf and currents. “I’m upside-down, swirling above jagged rocks, unable to see my oxygen bubbles. During a whiteout, I can float for five minutes with no idea where I am.”

Sloan is awed by the milky nothingness he confronts during urchin spawning season, when the sea teems with delicate, transparent creatures of great beauty. The currents and low visibility make diving too risky. “Imagine if you could see all the pollen spores in the air. It’s like snorkeling in a tub of bathwater after you dropped a bar of soap in it. This is the soup of life, you understand.”

He first dipped a toe into that soup at age 5, during a fishing holiday to the Scottish Highlands. (The family motto: Sleep long and prosper.) When the lure of his older brother, Robbie, got snagged on some slimy seaweed, Roddie volunteered to fetch it. “I must have walked only a few yards, but it seemed like a few miles,” he says. “I remember thinking that the sea is this wonderful place.”

Which, growing up in the land-locked hamlet of Dunscore he never much got to experience. “At 19, I kind of struggled off into life,” he says. “I was bitterly disappointed with it.” He drifted through Europe, finding work in restaurants as a porter, a cook and a manager. At 27, he landed in Oslo and got a job in a sports lounge. While tending bar he met his future wife, Lindis, a college student who had come to watch a British soccer match on the wide­screen TV. She asked him to change the channel. He complied. They’ve been a couple pretty much ever since.

It was Lindis’ brother who suggested that Roddie move to Arctic Norway and hunt the feral urchin. “The big problem was not fishing them,” Roddie says. “The big problem was selling them.” Business was never easy, though Sloan began to source some of the continent’s top restaurants, like Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monaco. But when his Paris wholesaler went bust in 2008, he decided to return to school and pursue a degree in engineering. A phone call from René Redzepi changed all that. The Noma chef asked Sloan to ship his greens to Denmark. Sloan was reluctant, but at Lindis’ urging—and after tripling the price as a disincentive—he gave in. “I was ready to throw in the beach towel,” he says. “René saved my career.” Noma now has a standing order for 100 pounds a week.

The greens are at their prime from November to the end of February. When the season winds up, Sloan switches to mahogany clams, which Norwegian fishermen once used as cod bait. The clams stop reproducing after 25 years, and some that Sloan harvests are hundreds of years old. “They’ve spent centuries just lying in their beds,” he says. Bored, not happy as, well...clams. “If a mahogany clam had a brain, it might think, ‘I’ve just turned 350. Why wasn’t I born a dog? Twelve years of this crap and it would all be over.’”

Urchins lack brains, too. The test—its spiny outer shell—protects what is basically an eating and breeding machine. The skeleton is divided into sections running from top to bottom, like the segments of an orange. Inside the body are five corals of roe, sometimes called tongues. On the underside of the test are a muscular system and five self-honing calcium carbonate teeth that allow the urchin to chomp through stone. This chewing apparatus is known as Aristotle’s lantern, from a description in the fourth century B.C. philosopher and naturalist’s Historia Animalium. (Scholars recently proposed that he was actually referring to the test, which resembles the bronze lamps of ancient Greece.)

Urchins are among the earliest forms of life known to have existed. Their fossils date back some 450 million years. “The little buggers are believed to share a distant common ancestor with humans,” says Sloan. Which sounds like the setup for another Norwegian joke.

Around 800 species of urchins are still extant. All have roe that’s edible, though not necessarily palatable. In the kitchen of his farmhouse, Sloan demonstrates how to cut around the Norwegian green’s mouth and scoop out the tongues. In theory, urchins should be opened with a coupe oursin—a tool specially designed for the job. Sloan doesn’t own one, so he uses his wife’s nail scissors. Inserting the tip into the mouthparts, he snips off an itty-bitty piece and trims the top third of the shell to reveal the roe. He spoons out a fillet and places it on your tongue: The sensation is soft and pillowy. “I love the taste of urchin when it’s really good,” Sloan says. “You start with sea salt, then you get a big iodine hit, and, at the end, a distinctive sweetness that sits in your mouth for hours.”

***

Oyster farmers in the United States have lately twisted the term terroir to create “merroir,” which refers to the flavors imparted by different areas of the sea. In the urchin’s case, flavor depends on the species and the seaweed it eats, says John Lawrence, who wrote the book on the subject (it’s for sale: Sea Urchins: Biology and Ecology, $200, Academic Press).

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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.

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