Text by Michael Booth / Photos Espen Sjølingstad Hoen/NTB Scanpix & Karoline
They look like something that might adorn Satan’s bobble hat: spiky and threatening, and not very appealing. But to many gastronomes, including me, sea urchins are the most delicious natural product on earth. And if you ask some of the world’s top chefs, the very best are the Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, or “Norwegian Greens”, collected off the coast of Norway with respectful, not to mention courageous, diligence by one man: a gruff, bearded emigré Scot called Roderick Sloan.
My obsession with sea urchins has taken me to some far-flung places but none more so than the tiny fishing community of Nordskott, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle near Bodø, where Sloan lives with his Norwegian wife and their three sons. There, I spent a day on his boat, heading out to sea at sunrise with the jagged white mountains behind us like a row of sharks’ teeth and the blessedly calm, platinum sea ahead. After half an hour with my hands buried deep in my armpits, tears streaming from my frozen face, Sloan stopped the boat, zipped up his dry suit, pulled on his gloves and mask, and plopped backwards into the water to freedive down to the seabed. Every few minutes, he would emerge from the depths, brandishing one or two shiny, spiny spheres, before heading back down, his mouth growing progressively frozen so that, by the end, he could hardly speak.
The result, back at the harbour in Nordskott, is a cluster of his prized sea urchins on the table in front of us. “Sea urchins are one of the oldest things in the sea,” says Sloan, his face slowly defrosting. “Humans have eaten them for over 3,000 years, you know. There are mosaics in Pompeii with them in.”
Sea urchins are abundant throughout the Mediterranean to this day, and prized in kitchens from Sardinia to the Bodrum peninsula. In Japan, uni are considered one of the greatest delicacies. All those spines are, it seems, protecting something very special: inside, once you have inserted a pair of scissors into the unfortunate creature’s orifice and snipped a hole around the top of its prickly carapace – boiled egg style – you will find five golden-orange “tongues”, in fact the gonads. Best eaten raw, they taste as if mermaids made vanilla ice cream.
Despite this, the locals in Nordskott – who call sea urchins “crow’s balls” – had given them a wide birth until Sloan’s arrival 10 years ago. “The people here thought I was crazy when I started to dive for them,” he says. “They are not a traditional catch in north Norway, and no one would touch them. But the sea is so clean and cold, and things grow very slowly which means they taste better. When the midnight sun comes, there’s so much algae for them to eat.”
Business was tough to begin with, though Sloan began to supply many of France’s top restaurants, like Alain Ducasse’s three-starred Le Louis XV in Monaco. But when his Paris wholesaler went bankrupt in 2008, his plan was to quit fishing and pursue an engineering degree. Then came a phone call from René Redzepi, head chef of Copenhagen’s now-legendary Noma, asking if Sloan could deliver his sea urchins to Denmark. The Scot was reluctant to begin with, but soon after Redzepi made the trip up to Arctic Norway. “I took him out in my boat. He’s special, that man, and I just liked him instantly. He has such a passion. It was my wife who said: you have to do this.”
Noma, Sloan acknowledges, effectively saved his business. The restaurant’s now-iconic “beachscape” dish showcased his sea urchins’ pale yellow innards, dried and scattered across frozen pebbles like sand, with beach herbs and raw shrimp. Helped by Redzepi’s endorsement, Sloan now supplies 32 of the world’s best restaurants, from Sweden’s Fäviken to the two-Michelin star Maaemo in Oslo. He repaid the favour with a memorable appearance at Redzepi’s now famous annual MAD food symposium, held in a Copenhagen circus tent.
“It was terrifying,” Sloan recalls of the talk he gave last year to an audience featuring some of the world’s greatest chefs, which opened with him calling himself a “fish out of water”. “Ferran Adrià [of elBulli] was there, and loads of Michelin-starred chefs. I just told my story, and there was incredible feedback about it.”
Among the crowd was the influential British chef, Fergus Henderson, who put Sloan’s sea urchins on the menu at his restaurant, St John, in London and has since been to visit him in Nordskott. Sloan’s in talks with Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in the UK, and was back at this August’s MAD, where Ducasse was one of those who sang his praises.
Sloan harvests his sea urchin beds on a five-year rotation, and only ever by hand. The best examples grow on exposed rocks in rougher seas. They like the aeration apparently, but this is also the most dangerous place to dive. “On a ‘washing machine’ day a big wave can push you upside-down into the rocks and you can end up not being able to see your oxygen bubbles,” he says. “I’ve had white-outs where I have floated for five minutes not knowing where I was.
“I like to think of myself as a kind of underwater talent scout, and René is my Alex Ferguson,” he says, showing me some of the other amazing shellfish he catches, including new discoveries like meaty mahogany clams and unbelievably sweet soft shell clams. “Starfish is a big debate at the moment. It’s eaten in Japan; I know there’s potential. But the next things I really want to get people eating are sea snails. They are my absolute favourite seafood.”
Next year he plans to offer food lovers and amateur fishermen the chance to join him in Nordskott. Visitors will be able to freedive for the sea urchins and shellfish he catches, as well as fish for some of the best cod and halibut in the world, and forage on the local beaches. As Sloan is also a trained chef, he’ll invite you into his kitchen and show you how to prepare your catch.
Above all, he is keen to show visitors this breathtaking part of Norway: “I love the tranquility here, the clean air, the changes of the seasons. You’ve got the Northern Lights, great skiing, and the fishing is amazing.” And not to forget our small, spiky friends, of which he seems genuinely fond.
“You know, I spend every day with them,” he says. “I have bits of their spines embedded in various parts of my body. I came here to make money from them years ago, but then I fell in love.”
Michael Booth’s latest book, Der er et Lykkeligt Land, is out now in Danish, and will be out in English as The Almost Perfect People – The Truth About the Nordic Miracle in February 2014
- - - - - - - -
Now it’s your turn
Sloan recommends eating his beloved sea urchins at Noma, where they’re served on a thin piece of crostini under duck or chicken skin (the dish was voted the third best in Scandinavia by the Nordic Nibbler website); at Maeemo in Oslo; and at London’s St John restaurant, where they’re served in the classic way: raw, with the top of the shell cut off.
noma.dk, maeemo.no, stjohngroup.uk.com
Catch them yourself
Sloan is planning to do exclusive sea urchin tours in Nordskott for up to eight people. You’ll go out on the boat and will be able to catch cod and halibut or freedive for sea urchins, or mahogany and soft-shell clams. You’ll learn how to clean, prepare and cook the produce with Roddie, as well as how to forage on the beach.
- - - - - - - -
Find more online