In its May issue, the editors of Food & Wine magazine annointed uni, or the roe (the only edible part) of a sea urchin, “the new bacon.” Their trend spotters found uni in haute cuisine dishes all over the United States, including in ice cream, along with mint and piment d’Espelette, at an upscale “farm-to-cone” ice cream maker in Portland, Oregon. That’s fine for the other Portland, but how is this supposed uni trend bearing out in Maine, where sea urchin is also known as the native fishery that collapsed after a decade of intense overfishing to meet demand from Asia?
The bacon analogy seems a stretch to Maggie Hunter, the scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources who tracks the state’s sea urchin fishery, given the price of the stuff (uni can cost $25 a pound, although a little goes a long way). Also, the timing is wrong, for Maine, anyhow, where the season to fish urchin runs from September to March. But Maine’s high-end chefs are in on the trend – Hugo’s serves an uni ice cream when Maine urchin are available – and dealers are certainly feeling the demand. In 1989, when Atchan Tamaki started ISF Trading Co., Maine’s biggest processor of sea urchin, all of his sea urchin business was for the export market to Japan. Now more than half of it is sold domestically, he said. And it’s not all for sushi restaurants by any means.
“It has become one of those cool seafood ingredients,” said Nick Branchina, director of marketing for Browne Trading, which has also seen a steady increase in wholesale demand in the past several years. (Browne Trading has no urchin to sell right now, not even the Chilean product that is usually available at this time of year, another sign of uni’s popularity.)
High-end restaurants in major cities have been experimenting with uni for awhile, Branchina said. What’s more interesting to him is the big jump Browne Trading has seen in retail sales online: a 54 percent increase between 2012 and 2013, and so far in 2014, up 93 percent from the previous January to May.
He said orders have been coming in from places as diverse as Sugar Land, Texas (a suburb of Houston), and Uniontown, West Virginia, which indicate that the home chef has caught on. The trend in restaurants, Branchina said, likely influenced an interest in serving it at home. At least for a very brave home cook: “Sea urchin is not necessarily an easy thing to work with sight unseen,” he said.
Some of Portland’s more adventuresome chefs are seriously in uni’s sway. At Hugo’s, it shows up when Maine uni is season in the form of custards and emulsions and also salt-cured, shaved over sea vegetable salads. And as chef/owner Mike Wiley puts it, “yes, even uni ice cream,” made with milk, eggs, lime zest and Chinese chili flake.
Damian Sansonetti at Piccolo fell hard for uni on his first trip to southern Italy, sometime around 2000, after seeing kids cracking urchins open on the beach to eat fresh from the shell. He cooks with urchin “whenever I can get my hands on it,” and makes a potato gnocchi with spring peas, ramps and a fennel cream sauce with sea urchin blended into the cream, then tops the whole thing with a garnish of more uni.
California urchins may be twice the size of Maine urchins, but he prefers to stay local. “I like the zingy flavor that the Maine sea urchins have,” he said. Like an oyster? “More like the depth of the ocean floor, like kelp and sea water and a sea breeze,” Sansonetti said.
And if that’s not enough, Brandon Hicks, the new chef at the Chebeague Island Inn, has said his love of uni actually motivated his recent move to Maine from New York.
But some, like David Levi of Vinland, whose menu is shaped entirely around seasonal Maine-grown or harvested foods, wouldn’t touch uni as an ingredient. He thought Food & Wine’s proclamation of uni as the new bacon was “appalling.” “I think it’s irresponsible,” he said. He cited the collapse of an industry that peaked in 1993 when fishermen pulled 42 million pounds of sea urchin out of Maine waters. The last big haul in Maine urchins was 1997, when 19 million pounds were landed (at a value of $21 million). Heavily regulated now – and Hunter said more restrictions on hauls are likely – landings in recent years have been just under 2 million pounds.
The season in Zone 1, which comprises the coast from New Hampshire to Rockland (Zone 2 extends from Vinalhaven to the Canadian border), is only 15 days long. That reflects how much the population was diminished by the overfishing of the 1990s, not to mention pollution and in some cases, dredging.
“Zone 1 is pretty played out,” Hunter said. Only about 25 urchin divers and draggers are still fishing in Zone 1, whereas 160 to 180 are fishing in Zone 2, she said. Monterey Bay Seafood Watch deems Maine sea urchin roe an “avoid” and recommends Canada as the “best choice” for consumption. Maine and Canada are the source for half the uni served in the United States, California provides the rest.
Food & Wine trumpeted uni as a trend in May, which happens to also be the month when the Department of Marine Resources begins its annual spring sea urchin dive survey in conjunction with the University of Maine and the Sea Urchin Zone Council. Over the course of eight weeks, two divers, including Maine Resources biologist Robert Russell and a commercial harvester, will fish their way up the coast, hitting at least 144 areas of possible sea urchin habitat. They enter the water at about 50 feet and make their way to the low-water mark, collecting sea urchin data to assess just how much the fishery has rebounded. Or not, as the case has been.
“In high school, the tide pools were just solid with them,” Hunter said. “I remember trying to walk across one of them in flip flops and regretting it. Now I might see one or two of them cowering in a crevice.”
For Wiley, uni deserves its moment in the sun, whether in custards, in hollandaise sauce or served up pristine at Hugo’s sister restaurant, Eventide Oyster Co. “Americans have wised up to its charms,” he wrote in an email. “We love working with uni, especially during the winter months when the waters are cold enough that the uni is firm, bright orange, and incredibly sweet.”
For him, there isn’t a moral dilemma in serving sea urchins, precisely because of the current regulations. “The Maine urchin season is short enough and well-regulated enough that we trust the Department of Marine Resources to protect the uni supply,” he said. “Given that we only buy uni in season, and only locally harvested uni, we’re confident that we’re behaving responsibly.”
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