I've been on a wild-gooseneck chase all week.
The hunt began after I read an intriguing tweet. "Excited that local, @ocean_wise gooseneck barnacles now available in Vancouver. Delicious," wrote @ChefAlexTung, who had tried them at La Pentola.
Yes, gooseneck barnacles are back. The sweet crustaceans have been harvested by the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island since time immemorial. But a short-lived commercial fishery was closed in 2005. Thanks to a court decision recognizing the aboriginal right to harvest and sell fish, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans approved a new fishery that opened in September.
Now these odd-looking sea critters, an expensive delicacy in Spain and Portugal (where they're known as percebes), are being served in restaurants all over Vancouver. Well, they were not readily available this week, but they should be this weekend.
Operated by the Nuu-chah-nulth in Clayoquot Sound, the fishery has not yet received the Ocean Wise seal of approval. Theodora Geach, an account representative with the Vancouver Aquarium conservation program, says she met with fishery members last week and expects they would soon oversee an external assessment.
"It's a conversation piece," Frank Pabst, executive chef at Blue Water Café, says of gooseneck barnacles. Last weekend, he had 15 pounds that he cooked Provençal style in olive oil, garlic, shallots, parsley and lemon.
Mr. Pabst describes the flavour of the crunchy stalk as a cross between lobster and clam. "But it's really an optical thing," he adds, laughing. "Some people might not be able to eat them."
Indeed. Some say the wrinkled, thumb-size peduncle looks like a long gooseneck or miniature geoduck. Others may see it as something more phallic.
"In the kitchen, we call them little dog penises," Mr. Pabst jokes.
We are not being entirely sophomoric. Gooseneck barnacles are actually famous for being the largest endowed species in the animal kingdom, relative to body size. Charles Darwin was so impressed with the size of the barnacle's penis – which can grow up to eight times its body length – he devoted eight years of his life to studying the creatures and published a four-volume monograph on their biology. Because barnacles glue themselves to hard surfaces and do not move, they need the telescopic range to fertilize their neighbours. Interestingly, the Pacific gooseneck barnacle has a much smaller penis than that of its European kin. According to new research by scientists at the University of Alberta, the local barnacles compensate with their unique sperm-casting ability, allowing them to shoot and catch from a distance.
Rest assured the barnacle muscle that is eaten is not the penis. That whiskery appendage shrinks back into the shell along with the feathery feeding legs.
The stalk will, however, douse you with a fat squirt of peach-coloured brine if the outer sheath is not removed. "We don't really have the budget for all the dry cleaning, which is why we peel off the skin," Mr. Pabst again jokes.
Alas, Blue Water was sold out of barnacles when I called. As was L'Abattoir and Farmer's Apprentice. I tried to arrange a tasting at La Pentola on Thursday, when a new shipment was expected to arrive. But because of the tricky nature of the harvest, the fishermen could not get out.
Barnacles are found in intertidal zones with strong tide surges. The fishermen, working in teams of two to four people, go out at low tide (around dawn and dusk) and use a sharp spade-like hand tool to pry them off the rocks in small clusters.
Because the barnacles are harvested live, the fishermen must find rocks on which they have attached themselves to mussels. (If ripped directly from the rock, they would tear and die). And because the product has a limited storage time, the fishermen do not go out until they receive an order.
By midweek, it looked like my goose was cooked. But then I read another tweet, this one from the Wildebeest restaurant. "Running gooseneck barnacles as a feature tonight with smoked marrow."
I rushed to Gastown, where, sure enough, the chef had bought some from another chef who wanted to spread the love around. We sampled a few barnacles that had been poached sous-vide in cider. They tasted like a gulp of ocean water, intensely briny but not fishy, with a slightly sweet finish.
The composed dish was full of smoky flavours from bacon and marrow, with fresh crispness from honey-compressed pears, sea asparagus and raw salsify. But so much was going on you couldn't taste the barnacles.
Goosenecks are not cheap. Tofino's Trilogy Fish Company sells them for $23 a pound. Restaurant appetizers range from $16 to $28 for a few ounces.
Mind you, that is far less expensive than in Europe, where barnacles cost up to $90 a kilogram. And think of the thrill that comes from savouring a new fishery from its inception. Priceless.