Having lived on my particular rock for a few years now, I have come to realize that never does a week go by without something interesting happening. Life on a rock moves faster than I ever thought it would – getting bored is out of the question.
Soon after we first arrived, the topic of harvesting sea eggs came up in a conversation with a lady who was becoming a friend. Though she said it had been many years since any had been harvested – 13 or 14, to put a number on it – so I didn’t ask for too many details, figuring it likely wouldn’t come up again. Apparently, they had been reaped to within an inch of extinction, hence the ban. I thought she was describing something like a sea slug, so my interest waned. It seemed unlikely that I would ever a) see this particular delicacy in my time here and b) even if I did, have the courage to put it passed my lips.
In the past, when sea eggs were allowed to be harvested, it only occurred one day a year around Creole Week, the last week in October. Whenever the topic did arise, there would be a noticeable glazing over of the eyes and a licking of the lips – the sense of longing unmistakable.
It seemed a difficult craving to bear – years long with no end in sight. But then, out of the blue a couple of weeks ago, the village was suddenly a buzz. It began as a rumor and was soon confirmed that for SEVEN WHOLE DAYS the Fisheries Department was going to allow people to harvest sea eggs! Chaos ensued – the villagers were frantically begging and borrowing all sorts of seaworthy (some not so!) vessels and snorkeling gear to get ready for the extravaganza that week.
At around 5:30am on the Monday morning, the beach was a hive of activity with people setting up their territories, digging holes (explanation comes later in my story), and getting ready for their boats and canoes to come back to land. It wasn’t long before the first of the vessels started arriving back and depositing their booty onto the beach.
I watched in amazement as short-spined, white sea urchins were brought ashore by the thousands. I couldn’t help but wonder if the 14 years of conservation was going down the tubes before my very eyes if these were the kind of numbers they were bringing out of the sea on just the first day of the week.
I continued to observe what was clearly a well-oiled machine. Each person in the small groups knew what their task was and deftly got on with it as soon as the urchins had been deposited at their feet. The first person bashed the urchin on its “head”, I assumed to put it out of its misery. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always done properly, but as a guest in this celebration, I was careful to not go too far with my [quiet] comments about animal cruelty.
The second person emptied out the turtle grass that the urchins ate, and the third person had the task of delicately removing the three lines of sea eggs attached to the inside of the shell. The eggs were then placed in a pot of sea water to wash off any sand and keep them out of the wind that always blows onto the beach.
Once all the eggs were removed from the shells (a task that took most of the day as the piles were constantly being replenished by the people bringing them in from the reefs), they were craftily placed back in some shells that had been cleaned out for this purpose. One member of the group had the task of making very thin sticks, similar to long toothpicks, which were placed in the middle of the shells and then the eggs were curled around them. Once loaded up in a conical shape, the eggs and shells were placed very carefully on banana leaves near a fire where they were left to cook until they resembled very strange cupcakes.
All the millions of shells that weren’t used were placed into the large holes on the beach (I told you I would explain this!) and buried. (A few weeks have passed since this event and the beach still resembles a South American plain of ant hills, and I wonder if it will ever flatten out again. Curious process, indeed.)
It was finally time to taste this delicacy and see what all the fuss was about. Since we had lent out all of our goggles, flippers, and kayaks and because we were new to the village, we were provided with with a few of these cooked sea eggs to try. Normally, each egg is sold for EC$15, which is quite a high price compared to other local foods being sold here. However, considering all the work that goes into getting the finished product, the locals coming in from around the country and other villages seemed quite happy to pay the asking price so they could once again taste what has become a highly treasured delicacy.
My verdict? The first one I ate took a bit of getting used to, the second was slightly better, and the final one (although a bit sandy!) was lovely. I don’t believe I will ever have the yearning for these eggs as the locals do, but like everything here, it isn’t just about the sea eggs – it’s about tradition, community, and a taste that takes them back to their roots.
During the whole week, I witnessed a strong sense of community spirit in the village, everyone working together, no competitiveness or arguments, just chatter and laughter. If it takes the harvesting of sea eggs to experience what everyone in the village made us feel a part of, then we, too, will spend the next 14 years looking forward to the opportunity to do this all again!
What a wonderful week it all was, and I am happy to report that there are still many of the sea urchins left on the reefs around the bay. I believe they will go on to thrive again, and I doubt the harvesting will be allowed again for several more years.
I love the way people in our village still have the ability to generate such wonderful enthusiasm and excitement for traditions; something we seem to have sadly lost for the most part in our Western world.
A few days after this week ended, our village, one of only three villages, hosted the very important Creole Day and the celebration continued. Never a dull moment in this island life indeed!