There are two types of people in the world: those who love eating sea urchin, and those who really, really don’t. But no matter where you live on the subject, you may not be aware of the environmental impacts surrounding the delicacy known as uni, or why you should maybe start eating more of it.
The Mendocino Coast is one of the biggest producers of sea urchin in California, and the folks up there would like to invite us all to the first ever Purple Urchin Festival, coming up June 17th through 19th (happy Father's Day, foodie dads!). Taking place in various locations in and around Fort Bragg, activities will center around indulging in the umami goodness that is uni.
In addition to eating, Urchin Fest is prioritizing education around the sea urchin due to an overabundance of the purple variety in Northern California in the last few years. Why is this a big deal? Well, ecosystems are all connected, and if one thing is out of balance, it affects a bunch of other things. The recent collapse of the sea star population has led to an exponential growth of purple urchin, and then the subsequent decimation of the abalone population. So Mendo residents, including local chefs and producers, are working towards eco-friendly ways to resolve these intertwined issues.
Sea urchin harvest on Van Damme Beach.(Brendan McGuigan)
"It is my job to choose more sustainable ingredients and showcase them to the public,” says Matthew Kammerer, executive chef at the Michelin-starred Harbor House Inn. “Chefs have more of a role in today's food scene, where education about products—including why and how to use them—can help shape the public's dining perspective and have a positive outcome on future generations. Purple sea urchin has been on our menu since day one. We are proud to serve all local products, but this one has extra meaning for us. Not just its flavor, but to help remove some urchin numbers from the ecosystem that is on the verge of collapsing."
Plenty of others are also joining the efforts, like the Mendocino Area Parks Association, Watermen's Alliance, Noyo Science Center, Freedive Shop and Urchinomics, a seafood company dedicated to restoring kelp forests by removing overgrazing barren sea urchins, feeding them on land, and selling them to distributors and restaurants. All of these organizations will be part of the festival by supplying select restaurant partners with uni, and also by leading a variety of educational events.
Highlights include an uni demo and educational talk on Saturday morning at Van Damme State Beach, with samples and demonstrations on how to harvest, open, and clean urchin straight from the sea. On Sunday, you can nibble on scones and coffee in the Abalone Room at Little River Inn while watching the trailer for the upcoming documentary film Sequoias of the Sea, and then learn a bit more with a presentation by the executive director of the Noyo Science Center.
What to Eat During Mendocino Urchin Fest
Kicking things off will be an outdoor demo and five-course purple urchin tasting luncheon ($150/person, $90 wine pairing option; reservations on Tock) on Friday June 17th, presented by Kammerer at The Harbor House Inn. This is a major highlight of the festival, so tickets may go quickly.
There are also ongoing culinary offerings happening all weekend, including uni specials with an optional sake pairing from World Sake Imports at Little River Inn, which will also host a seminar ($80) with sake expert Kerry Tamura on the best sakes from seven different Japanese prefectures along with uni snacks on Saturday afternoon.
Elk Cove Inn will present an uni-themed menu—expect sea urchin flan with lobster Cognac sauce and a sea urchin risotto with mussel and porcini jus—in their Sibo restaurant.
In the morning over at Glendeven Inn & Lodge and Inn at the Cobbler’s Walk, guests can select an opt-in special menu featuring an uni scramble at breakfast each day, plus a decadent uni pasta each evening at the wine hour. Both are complementary to overnight guests.
Van Damme State Park Beach.(Brendan McGuigan)
Where to Stay During Urchin Fest
Many of the places listed above that are offering amazing food are also great options for staying the weekend. If you can’t score a room at Harbor House, there are a ton of good specials and discounts related to the festival, such as three nights for the price of two at Little River Inn, Glendeven Inn & Lodge, and The Inn at The Cobbler’s Walk. Elk Cove Inn will offer 50 percent off the third night when two nights are booked. Noyo Harbor Inn will offer 20 percent off for Thursday through Saturday nights.
// Mendocino Urchin Fest is June 17-19, for details, go to urchinfest.com.