The 'oursinades'

in Marseille and on the Côte Bleue

According to Marcel Pagnol, no one would ever want to eat a sea urchin if one judged things only by their appearance. With its shell full of black needles, the sea urchin does not make you want to eat it at first sight. However, it is a product that has been highly appreciated by the Mediterranean population since ancient times. Every year, ‘oursinades’ (sea urchin festivals) are held in and around Marseille to promote this ‘sea hedgehog’.

An event on the Côte Bleue

An oursinade refers to a large tasting of sea urchins and shellfish in several communes on the Côte Bleue, which stretches from the north of Marseille to Martigues. The most popular oursinade is that of Carry-le-Rouet, a port village located about 30 kilometres from the city of Marseille.
The adoration of sea urchins by the inhabitants of Carry-le-Rouet dates back to 1952, when the first sea urchin tasting was organised in the calanque du Cap Rousset in Provence. Jean-Baptiste Grimaldi, mayor of the commune, received his weight in sea urchins from the fishermen. Since this event, the sea urchin has obtained its title of nobility, which it will never lose.
From 1960 onwards, the mayor officially introduced the day of the sea urchin. It takes place in February, which is a good time because the sea urchins are at their fullest. The main objective was to make this tradition known to as many people as possible.

About ten years later, in the 1970s, the sea urchin festival was transformed into the ‘sea urchin month’. This popular festival takes place during the first three Sundays of February on the port of Carry-le-Rouet. Several stands welcome you with trays of freshly caught sea urchins and shellfish. Musical and dancing animations are also organised to celebrate the urchin festival. With family or friends, this is an opportunity to savour this seafood served on a platter while enjoying a friendly atmosphere.

Regulated fishing

Like many seafood products, sea urchin fishing is subject to relatively strict regulations. For the southern French departments near the Mediterranean (Bouches-du-Rhône, Var and Alpes-Maritimes), fishing is authorised, but individuals must respect certain rules:
– Sea urchin fishing is only open from November 1st to April 15th (outside this period, it is strictly forbidden to fish for sea urchins);
– The minimum size of the urchin is 5 centimetres, without taking into account the spines;
– For fishing on foot or underwater, the harvest cannot exceed 4 dozen urchins per fisherman and per day;
– On board a boat or a pleasure boat, it is forbidden to harvest more than 4 dozen sea urchins per fisherman per day with a maximum of 10 dozen in total per boat.
The urchin fishing period is precisely delimited in order to preserve the species during its reproduction period. If these rules are not complied with, the offence is punishable by a fine of up to 22,500 euros. All equipment used to harvest the sea urchins can also be seized.

Eating sea urchins

Sea urchins are usually opened with scissors and eaten feet first in the water. To remove the impurities surrounding the gonads (reproductive glands), the sea urchins are shaken firmly. These ‘sea chestnuts’ are traditionally eaten plain, without adding any sauce. In this case, the meats are picked up directly with a piece of bread. Sea urchins can also be eaten with a spoon, with a twist of lemon, or as a slice of bread on a buttered rusk for extra flavour.

Many recipes exist to highlight the Mediterranean coral such as brouillade, omelette, pancakes or soufflé. Several restaurants in Marseille offer sea urchins on their menus during the authorised fishing period (Pierrot Coquillages, L’Avant-Cour, La Cantine de l’Écailler…). There is no doubt that your taste buds will be solicited to discover this Provencal dish.