Down to the sea, in search of edible Spanish treasure

Generations of Galicia's fishermen scrape a good living from the cliffs along the treacherous Atlantic

Every year, along the craggy Atlantic shores of Galicia, thousands of fishermen rappel like spiders down to the sea, in search of purply prey clinging to the sides of the cliffs.

Braving tempestuous waves and dangerous undertows, the fishermen sometimes go head first into the water to scrape their quarry from stony perches jutting up from the ocean.

In the hunt for goose barnacles – a great delicacy here – a few men die each year, and more than a few break bones after being smashed against the rocks.

The risks are high, but so are the rewards.

A half-kilogram of percebes, shared by two as an appetizer, can cost up to $50 in December and January, when the hunt is most dangerous and the catch less bountiful. The fishermen earn about half of that sum.

Luis Miguel Mariñas Vasquez, known as Lichi, is a wiry man with a complexion leathered by 25 years of hacking away at the rocks around La Coruña. Lichi learned the job from his father, who sold his bicycle at age 9 for a little dinghy and a pick, and spent the next 73 years gathering the shellfish, eventually luring both of his sons to the seashore. "Most people had soup for a first course, we had percebes," Lichi recalls.

The crustaceans are not exactly an appetizing sight to the first-time diner. Served in a heap, they look like a mound of tiny elephant feet, with a little of the ankle poking out. The edible part is sheathed in a purplish black "skin" resembling a piece of rough cloth. The meat – deep violet in color and sucked out of its sheath – has a briny taste. It's firmer than a clam, chewier than shrimp.

Percebes are also plentiful in the waters off Morocco and Portugal, but many claim the best and fattest are to be found along Galicia's battered coast.

Lichi dodges waves and plunges underwater with his pick in hand, careful not to break the bodies of the shellfish while he scrapes them off, one by one. He and his partner, Antonio Geada Uzal, say fear comes with the job.

"The sea is tranquil now, but there can be a blow at any moment," says Geada, who has been on the job for six years.

"Hey, hey," screams Lichi, as a wave creeps up behind his partner. Geada runs to catch a grip on a nearby rock, jutting out from the water's surface, as the surf breaks over his head.

Both men scrape away, constantly glancing over their shoulders at the treacherous sea.

Hunting percebes was more dangerous when Lichi's father started in the 1920s. Without proper gear, the men often rappelled down the rocks with their wives holding the other end of the rope. Many fishermen died of hypothermia – since, unlike now, they had no protective wet suits and did the job barelegged. And there were no strict regulations or licensing as there are today.

"My grandfather spent 73 years in the sea, and he never learned how to swim," says Javier Losack Mariñas, Lichi's 19-year-old nephew, who recently joined the crew.

On a recent morning in September, Lichi gathered nine kilograms of percebes in three hours, working efficiently against the low tide and the some 50 other fishermen licensed in his zone. The job is a constant balance between supply and demand, and safety. The seas are tranquil in the summer, so nine kilograms can easily be gathered in three hours. But the over-saturated market brings prices down by half. Fishermen earn twice as much money during the brutal winter months, but the risk also doubles.

"It is not about the money," says Lichi, who makes on average $3,000 a month, after expenses. "You have to love it. Just like hunting, it is a beautiful sport, a long tradition in Galicia that has endured. When the sea is calm and the percebes plentiful, there is nothing I enjoy more."

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