Creatures of the Deep

April 2, 2007

“Sure, I’ll try anything.”

I regretted the words almost as soon as they left my lips.  San Sebastian is considered by some to have the best tapas, or pintxos as they’re called locally, in Spain, and most of the bars and cafes have a fantastic assortment.  Fortunately (or not) I had found some new Basque friends to guide me through the stunning array of choices. 

San Sebastian, or Donostia, is the jewel of Spain’s Basque country.  It’s home to a spectacular beach and a pristinely beautiful old town, the Parte Vieja.  This was where I found myself, face to face with a slice of bread topped with something that resembled an overgrown snail with beady eyes and antennae.

“It’s just a prawn” one of them told me.  The prawn was looking at me. 

“I swear they’re really tasty and fresh.  It was probably was still in the water this morning.”  I looked around the bar, everyone was enjoying sea creatures on toast along with the local sweet txacoli wine and sidra (sparkling cider).  One of the perks of being right on the North Atlantic is all the seafood you can eat straight off the boat, but I’m just not used to my seafood being able to see me too.

“Do you eat the whole thing?”  I could handle the anchovies (they tasted like pure salty, pickly goodness) and the way that all the fish seemed to be served whole here (because you could cut off the head, scrape off the scales, and push the whole mess to the side).  But his beetle-like thing creeped me out, even though I knew it wasn’t much different from a cocktail shrimp.

“Here, try this one first.”  I was handed another piece of bread with a piece of something whitish on it – it looked like the yummy fresh cod that I’d had for lunch.  Once it was in my mouth, however, the pebbled texture and briney taste were unfamilar.  “What was that?” I asked once I was done chewing the slightly tough, but not altogether unpleasant pintxo.

They conferred amongst themselves, trying to figure out the English word for it.  One of the Brits in my group who’d been in San Seb for a while already spoke up.  “It’s a sea cucumber” he informed me.  I gagged a little and quickly poured some wine down my throat. 

“Really?  Like the slimy crawly things that look like huge slugs?”

“‘Fraid so.  They eat those, and just about everything that comes out of the bay here.”

“Jesus H. Christ ” I paused.  “It actually wasn’t that bad, though.  Kind of like a chewy pickle.  That prawn thing doesn’t seem so scary now.”

“Those are actually really good once you get past their looks” he said.  “Just grab it by the head and suck the rest off.”  I laughed at his double entendre as he said “Forgive me, that came out wrong.” 

The group of locals was egging me on.  Now chances are they were just having some fun with a tourist, but everyone else in the place was enjoying the creepy little critters.  So I picked up my prawn by it’s creepy little head and just went for it.

Surprisingly, the actual taste was pretty good – very similar to really good sashimi.  However, the feeling of its feelers brushing my cheeks as I chewed made me shudder and I dropped the head on my plate.  My local audience clapped and offered toasts in their native Euskera. 

“You can eat the head also” one of them said, and slurped it down. 

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