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As a boy in L’Anse-au-Clair Danny Dumaresque would observe how ravenous gulls would drop down to the landwash to snatch up sea urchins exposed by the receding tide. The big birds would soar to a height and let go the spiny creatures so they would fall to earth and break open on the rocks below. Garbage guts would then sweep in to indiscriminately slurp out all the exposed innards.
Forty years later Mr. Dumaresque is hiring divers to pluck the same echinoderms off the sea floor of the great bays of the North East coast—and conveying them to a fish plant in Ramea where Japanese-trained workers carefully harvest their gonads.
You may have seen sea urchin “roe” offered in sushi joints as “uni.” Japan is the biggest market for the stuff, and the destination for most of the product from Mr. Dumaresque’s Labrador Gem Seafoods facility on Newfoundland’s South Coast.
Mr. Dumaresque spared us a couple of packages of his best Narita–bound sea urchin roe and we took them to the Indy Eats Test Kitchen for analysis and review.
In the interest of sampling them at optimal freshness we tried a couple straight out the box when we got back to the truck. They have a mild flavour of the sea; there is a creamy sweetness. Doesn’t immediately recall anything else we’ve eaten. (Chef Tak Ishiwata of Basho Restaurant in St. John’s serves the Labrador Gem uni in a couple of delicious preparations and prefers to let them rest a day or two to shed moisture and intensify flavour.)
Back at the home kitchen laboratory we made some inelegant sushi, a bite sized boat with rice as ballast and a nori hull. Discreet smear of luminous green faux-wasabi paste to fix the pouch of roe to the rice and you’re done. Dipped lightly into a pool of tamari and then into the mouth. This was winning. We could see why the Japanese would go through the trouble of flying the product half way around the world for such a nosh. With uni this fresh and sweet our sushi betrayed what all the fuss is about. Will do this again.
The Europeans are fans too. A pal told me he had eaten the sea urchin roe straight out to the water near Marseille, on that stretch of coastline they call The Calanques. A diver brings them to the surface from the Mediterranean to be cut open with purpose-built shears and consumed on the beach. They cook with them as well; with eggs, with rice, with pasta. A famous variation is served at Le Bernadin, a lux seafood resto in Manhattan. That plate comes garnished with beluga caviar, an addition Indy Eats Test Kitchens was told by the editor we could not afford. Serve it plain we thought, dollop of caviar is cheating anyway—it makes everything taste great.
The sauce is simple, fresh sea urchin roe emulsified with warm butter and then tossed with pasta fresh and hot out of the pot. It comes out the colour of KD, no kidding. The sea urchin is subtle enough that the butter notes are dominant. Can see how the caviar would supply a nice accompanying piscine punch.
For us the sushi was the better use of the product.
There are claims uni is an aphrodisiac but we were not stirred.
What to drink with sea urchin gonads? In sushi probably a dry, unspoofy beer would work. Saki, obviously, but the NLC offers only the one. We had it with an inexpensive Côtes du Rhône blanc and it paired well. With the pasta it calls for a Mediterranean white, a Vermentino or Verdicchio, nothing too pushy on the palate. Tak Ishiwata agrees it should be Saki and, if not, an Italian white wine, thinking Gavi. I’ve read Riesling is a good match but they’re wrong.
So kudos to the ever enterprising Danny Dumaresque for keeping that plant in Ramea going and bringing much needed export dollars to our struggling economy. (The plant was recently granted new licences to process lobster, groundfish and pelagics.) It ain’t easy running a business in rural Newfoundland. Mr. Dumaresque can’t even avail of Deer Lake airport to ship his product; he has to schlep all the way to YYT. If only there was a tunnel under the Strait of Belle Isle…
Coming soon: the Indy test kitchen investigates Merasheen oysters—and wabbit.
Photo provided by author.
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