Look at these monsters. Take a good, long look. They are called percebes, gooseneck barnacles or stalked barnacles. People all over Europe have the nerve to swear on their grandmother’s sight that these frightening, gnarled-claw crustaceans are not only edible, but delicious, too. Never mind the fact that percebes fetch more money than lobster per pound; you’d think that after looking at these beasts, nobody in their right minds would consider chewing on one. You would expect a foreigner who happens upon these reptilian toes in a foreign country to turn on her heel and head in the opposite direction in haste.
And that is exactly what most rational people do—they walk away. I, on the other hand bought a pound of them for my children to eat. We were in Paris at the time. Had we been in America I could have been arrested for child-abuse.
I bought them from a reputable-looking fishmonger just a few blocks over from the Louvre. I speak enough French to ask ‘Ou est le Poste?’ (where is the post office) and ‘Mes souliers sont orange, et ses chaussures sont bleu’ (my shoes are orange and her shoes are blue’) but I was struggling to negotiate a mid-afternoon seafood snack with this guy. The kids were clambering for food at a fevered pitch. Anxiously I stammered out, ‘Feed-moi, vite!’ feed me quick! But, looking back, maybe I said, ‘Feed me feet!’ because that is pretty much what it looked like he handed over to us; a bag of mutated feet.
Those two years I spent repeating remedial French in high school were not paying off the way I had hoped.
The fishmonger watched me (as I butchered his language) with a look on his face residing somewhere between boredom and irritation (I can’t say I blame him). Looking at me through his round, wire glasses, he chuckled a little bit and discharged a huge scoop of the aforementioned creatures into a clear, plastic bag.
My husband was standing to the side of me. I looked at him, his eyes widening, silently pleading with me No, not those—not THOSE! His face made an impassioned, silent scream, as he furrowed his eyebrows and stared directly at the harmless, cooked prawns. He mouthed the word ‘crevette’, but I ignored him. It was too late anyway, we had barely the vocabulary to piece together the request of food, there was no way we could backtrack now summoning enough French to say ‘We’ve changed out minds and actually don’t want the tiny crocodile claws, thank you’-- without looking like twits.
Before handing me the bag of primordial toes, the fishmonger was kind enough to wordlessly demonstrate how to eat the barnacles. Grabbing the nail end, he pinched the bit of meat at the other end, twisted and pulled a sort of slug-like looking thing out and popped it into his mouth. Chewing with his eyes closed, he smiled. ‘It tastes of… the sea. Enjoy!’ he said in perfect English (forking Frenchman).
Don’t judge a book by its cover (or a crustacean by it’s clawed foot)
I grew up eating steamers (soft shell clams). I’ve been told that some people find them off-putting. If by ‘off-putting’ they mean that they feel uncomfortable with the manner in which one must slide the coarse, condom-like membrane off the freakishly phallic clam neck before tossing into one’s mouth, then I can see their point, but I’ve always adored them. The clam is sweet, with textures varying between a velvety soft belly and a firm, chewy neck. It was as a teen, eating steamers and raw oysters in the Cape that I developed this theory: If a food is horribly ugly or smelly (this applies mostly to cheese), but still remains popular with locals then it must taste good. I mean it’s got to have something going for it, right?
I trotted my children out to an empty bench in Jardins des Tuileries, carrying my bag of percebes like a prize. My husband grimaced and shook his head in defeat. We sat down and my three year old contemplated the percebes for a moment then asked as a matter of fact, “Are these turtle legs?” I told her no, handed her one and she gobbled it down. After the first hesitant taste, so did the rest of us.
We all hunkered over the plastic bag in the springtime sun, sucking and slurping, twisting these critters that spent their lives clinging to the side of Spanish sea cliffs, free from their claw-like home and savouring their meat, sweet like scallops and at the same time salty like the sea, and reminiscent of oyster.
They were sublime.
As seawater streamed down our hands and forearms, my little girls tried in vain to lick their elbows; an attempt to catch the last bit of briny flavour.
It was the best meal we had in Paris.