Last month to celebrate my birthday, and that of a friend, we went to a modest Galician restaurant in our central-eastern neighborhood of Madrid which is locally popular for its low prices and great food. Their cider is brought directly from Galicia in barrels, and the tapas in this basement restaurant are generous, and delicious. However, this was not a day for only tapas, we were going to have a feast.
Among plates of octopus with potatoes, patatas bravas, morcilla with pimientos de padrón, we treated ourselves to what is considered a delicacy in Spain, Percebes or “Gooseneck Barnacles”
An interesting and strange food, its said that before the 18th C its unlikely people actually ate these crustaceans, considering them as appetizing as rocks, or even imagining them to be small monsters with many, very ugly, feet. Some accounts state that they were thought to be the early form of Barnacle Geese, birds which to the medieval eye seemed to appear out of nowhere. The geese don’t of course, but in an age before mass transport, people had no idea that these birds migrated and therefore hatched their eggs elsewhere.
Percebes in Spain are found along the rugged coasts of Galicia, especially near the dangerous cliffs of the appropriately named “Costa da Morte,” or the Coast of Death. It’s a beautifully striking landscape, with jagged cliffs with the cold Atlantic waters pounding the huge rocks below. This creates the perfect habitat for these barnacles who attach themselves permanently to the rocks beaten by the surf and feed off the plankton and other small crustaceans that the waves bring them. Fisherman risk their lives as they swim to harvest the Percebes, thus explaining the high prices Spaniards will gladly pay to indulge in this delicacy.
Percebes are cooked for just a few minutes in salt or sea water. As the Galician saying goes, “auga a ferver, percebes botar” When water boils, take out Percebes. Nothing else is added to the water or the Percebes once they are cooked as to preserve this special, sought after flavor except maybe a bay leaf.
But how do you eat these strange looking critters? The head, well, I think it’s the head, is covered with a strong shell which is easy to twist off from the body, exposing the moist, soft and yet firm meat within the tube of the neck or body. With every bite its like getting a squirt of the delightfully salty sea.
Where to try Percebes? If not in Galicia they can be had in many Galician restaurants around Spain. Madrid, although landlocked, is an excellent spot as well because of the enormous amounts of fresh seafood arriving daily. Try a Galician restaurant such as Maceiras on Calle Huertas, 66.
Or if you want to try my neighborhood place, its called “De’Galicia” and located near Metro Manuel Becerra on Paseo Marqués de Zafra, 8. Tel 91 356 91 69.
For more formal dining, with higher prices try:
El Pescador: High quailty fish and seafood at a Madrid standard.
Combarro – bills itself as Galicia in Madrid.