In pursuit of the barnacle bounty

A gastronomic search for the king of Portuguese seafood might reveal lobsters, prawns, and oysters. But the tastiest seafood of them all? Perceves!

Perceves are tube-shaped crustaceans that cling to the granite rocks of the ocean-bashed Portuguese coastline. They are scientifically classed as Pollicipes cornucopia, more commonly known as goose barnacles.

Ask gourmets about them and they will dissolve into lip-licking rapture.

In an article in The Times, Mark Edwards, executive chef of the famed Nobu restaurants, said his favourite seafood was goose barnacles. Even VILA VITA’s own two-star Michelin chef Hans Neuner cannot speak highly enough of them with their distinctive sea taste. The Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker Bowles' son Tom is fast becoming one of the UK's most respected food writers, and in his second book, The Year of Eating Dangerously, he climbs cliffs in search of goose-neck barnacles. The Fino restaurant in central London has an extensive list of unusual and exotic fish dishes, and perceves, when in season, are often on the menu for a very high price.

Virgilio Dias lives in Raposeira with partner Alison and their son Tiago. He works for an oyster company as a crane operator. His father Elias was a fisherman, and after listening to his dad’s tales of perceves and trying them himself, he learned as a teenager how to harvest them from the untamed, atmospheric landscape on the most south-westerly point of Europe.

These barnacles are truly wild and only grow in a few remote, hazardous places. Traditionally found in Portugal, Spain, France and Morocco, they thrive in areas that are exposed to the hard beat of the Atlantic waves so the collectors have to clamber down steep rocks or try to jump from boats bobbing in the rough sea to reach them.

Dressed in wet suits, boots and carrying hand-made tools, they head for the rocks. The harvester can easily get pounded by a breaker and slip into the sea in pursuit of the bounty.

They used to be called marisco dos pobres, or the seafood of poor people, but the tables have turned and the barnacles can command whopping prices of up to €60 per kilo. On one of Virgilio’s harvesting trips he met a Spanish collector who told him they were selling in Spain at anything up to €150 a kilo!

The strange-looking perceve has a sooty finger-thick trunk with a rose-coloured inner tube. At one end is a scaly head that attaches itself to a rock and at the other a diamond-shaped foot that looks like a dinosaur’s claw. At high tide, this foot opens to reveal little pink tendrils through which the barnacle filters the surrounding seawater to feed.

The correct way to eat them is to pinch the foot between your thumb and finger and pull the inner tube out of its scaly case, and eat the flesh off from the claw.

To cook them, Virgilio explains: “Traditionally, they are very lightly boiled with just a touch of salt and a bay leaf then served piping hot on a plate with bread and butter. They should remain fresh for about four days although of course like most seafood they are best eaten on the day they are pulled from the sea.”

Don't even think about gathering your own goose barnacles from the Sagres or Cape St Vincent rocks. Besides the danger from the sea, each perceve patch is jealously guarded by locals and controlled by strict regulations and licences.

Perceves taste like sweet lobster with the texture of an oyster, washed over with a tang of sea spray, but you end up with more bits on your table at the end of the meal than you did at the start.

They are delicious, and washed down with wine, perceves really do make a fabulous starter.

Vila do Bispo hosts every year the Perceves Festival. This year edition is from the 2nd to the 4th of September.