These other-worldly-looking creatures are Percebes. Percebes can be found where the sea crashes into the rocks in Spain’s northwest coast. Incredibly dangerous to harvest, they’re the most expensive seafood in the world. In Galicia, they’re a delicacy and a luxurious treat. On a visit to A Coruña, I decided to try them.
I first heard about percebes from my host in A Coruña. We’d gone out for a beer after I’d arrived and I was asking her about the food in Galicia. From a picture she showed me, percebes looked like the legs of a lizard or even an alien. What they didn’t look like is food.
Outside of Spain and Portugal (where percebes is also a delicacy), they’re largely known as goose barnacles. And although I’d heard of goose barnacles before, I don’t think I’d ever seen them. I certainly didn’t think they were something you could eat! But the goose barnacles found on Spain’s Atlantic coast are hailed by many in Galicia as the most delicious fruit of the sea you can find. As someone who loves seafood, I knew I had to try them.
There are basically two parts to a goose barnacle or percebes (which seems to be used for the singular and plural). The top of it is basically the shell and looks a bit like a claw. Below this is the main part, which looks a bit like a tube covered with a dark, rubbery-looking skin. The goose barnacle is attached to a rock via the tube bit. And beneath the skin of the tube is the fleshy meat that can be eaten.
As an aside, David Attenborough beautifully explains why goose barnacles shouldn’t be confused with the Barnacle Goose in this very short video clip.
The rock stars of the ocean
If food were celebrities, then percebes would be the ocean’s biggest rock star (sorry, lobster!). Like other superstar foods such as truffles and saffron, percebes are expensive. At A Coruña’s famous Plaza de Lugo fish market, they were between €30 and €60 for a kilo. But at their best, they can reach values of €100 and even up to €200 for a kilo!
The reason why they’re so expensive is because they’re also very dangerous to harvest.
Galicia and the wild, wild coast
North-west Spain’s coast is one of the most dangerous in the world. A section of the coast isn’t called Costa da Morte (death coast) for nothing! This is where the wild Atlantic Ocean meets big rocks like nowhere else. I say meet but I really mean crashes. Percebes are thought to be at their tastiest in these conditions. This is because the harder the ocean crashes into the sea, the harder the percebes have to work to stay on the rocks. This also makes harvesting them a dangerous business. Indeed, they tend to be tastier and more expensive during the winter months when the ocean is rougher.
Wearing wetsuits and armed with a crowbar, people risk their lives to harvest them. After climbing down to open rocks where the waves come in, they’ll look for a good moment between crashing waves to collect the percebes. To harvest the percebes, they’ll use a crowbar to basically hack them out of the rocks. At the same time, they have to be keep an eye out for the waves so they can make a quick escape. As you can see in the video below, they usually work in pairs or groups so one person can be on the lookout and whistle or shout when a particular wave looks menacing.
Here’s a video clip from the BBC showing what the job of harvesting percebes looks like… Think it could definitely compete as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world!
Tasting percebes in A Coruña
After learning about percebes, I thought I’d make a point of looking out for them on menus so I could try them. I didn’t initially have much luck. But I did find them at A Coruña’s Plaza de Lugo fish market. In my bad Spanish, I tried to ask one of the women selling percebes if she knew a restaurant where I could try them. But instead, she took one of the percebes and gave it to me to try. I had no idea what to do! But with her gesturing I put the long rubbery tube bit in my mouth and tried to squeeze out the meat that was inside (I found out later this isn’t how you should eat them). I managed to get out a bit of meat although it was probably the size of a finger tip.
It’s hard to really judge them on that basis but I liked what I tasted. It tasted similar to a razor clam to me but perhaps a little sweeter. I was told it should taste like you were diving into the sea. I’ll have to eat more of them to decide whether I agree. Of course, I only saw percebes on offer in a restaurant after this and after I’d eaten already ordered a plate of pulpo (octopus).
How to eat percebes
I told my host and another local I met that I’d eaten the percebes raw, which they found strange. But I’m still alive and writing this so it’s clearly not a problem. The best way to eat them, however, is when they’ve been boiled briefly in seawater. They’re served by the plateful and are best eaten when they’re still warm. To do that, you should twist the tube off the shell bit. This reveals the fleshy bit that you can eat.
As I didn’t eat the one I tried properly, here’s a photo of someone doing it as it should be done…
My host said they’re a bit like peanuts, you can’t just eat one and once a plate of them is put on the table, you’ll find them quickly demolished. In Galicia, they’re particularly popular as a treat around Christmas
Plaza de Lugo Fish Market in A Coruña
A Coruña has the biggest fishing fleet in Spain and its fish market at Plaza de Lugo is the best place to visit to see their catch. Plaza de Lugo itself is basically a shopping block. There are some nice boutique shops facing the street (albeit a bit upmarket for me) but inside the block is the fish market. It’s definitely worth checking out if you love seafood. Even more so if you have a kitchen where you’re staying and enjoy cooking.
You’ll find all sorts of fish and shellfish as well as squid, octopus (a big Galician favourite) and chipirones, which are like squid. Obviously, you can find percebes there too!
If you’re already a big fan or just want a reason to go see what all the fuss is about, the best time to find them will be at a festa do percebes (basically, a festival celebrating the famed barnacle). Galicia have several over the summer. Paxinas Galegas (in Spanish) lists the festivals. Alternatively, you could do a search on ‘festa do percebes’.
Explore Galicia with a car hire
Heading to Galicia and want to explore the region with your own set of wheels? You can pick up a car hire at all three of Galicia’s airports. I flew into A Coruña Airport but you can also pick up a car hire at Santiago de Compostela Airport or Vigo Airport if you’re flying into one of those airports instead.