NASTASYA TAY + YIANNIS HADJIASLANIS
Prized in upscale sushi bars the world over as an East Asian delicacy, the humble sea urchin has been scavenged by generations of Greek fishermen for its succulent roe. the extra-ordinary dives into an underwater harvest.
Parnassus, sailor, caretaker, man-of-the-world, eponymous in his hulk, rolls the pointy ends of a most impressive moustache between thumb and forefinger. Staring straight ahead, he instinctively nudges the wheel ever so slightly with the bottom of his forearm. There’s no map.
We glide on, over ripples of molten glass, a watercolour dreamscape in paint-by-numbers shades of indigo: the hooked finger of Pelion’s peninsular, beckoning towards the Aegean.
There is silence but for the shudder of the engine, as land slips past the bow, liminal in the mist as its mythical inhabitants: generations of centaurs roaming the oak forest, half-man, half-beast.
The contrast sharpens on craggy limestone as the boat slows.
On the Moondance, Captain Parnassus sighs with satisfaction. Slipping off his salt-stained shorts for a festive Hawaiian print, he dives in, a happy rotund arc. We follow.
Nervous schools of gavros whip between clusters of rock, their acrobatic glints a sharp counterpoint to the lazy, oily intersection of water salty and sweet. On the sand, fat sea cucumbers slumber, oblivious to the ruthless harvest to come.
Carcasses of urchin feasts past crumble into dust, melting into the seabed, stark and pale in their sacrifice. A new generation of ahinos nestles amid the rocks, just metres below the surface, in water so clear you forget and take a breath.
The quiet is all consuming, soothing, surreal.
A barefoot diver with wet curls emerges from the shallows, tugging a mesh bag dangling from its buoy. He beckons.
I am told to search for ahinos in shades of deep mauve and burgundy, discarding their ebony black mates. Spikes splinter between the tips of the steel tongs, the brittle little creature scraping the walls of its crevice as I twist my wrist to wrench it free.
In the palm of my hand, it is a delicate, impossibly beautiful thing. Angry defences give way to a perfect, tiny, circular mouth, soft and vulnerable, surrounded by quills in crimson and chocolate brown.
Amid the mesh, the array is unending. Mustard thorns, violet; those who twitch and tickle, others extending tiny pink suckers to tether on for dear life.
We sit on the back ledge of the Moondance, salt drying on faces.
Urchins are pulled from the mesh, carefully positioned between the graceful arcs of the tongs. A perfect crushing execution slices the fragile shell into two neat cupolas: a massacre on the back deck.
On the bottom, under gelatinous membrane and green pellets, a star-pointed fanfare of roe, in varying shades of tangerine and brown.
Rinsed in seawater, painstakingly cleaned with a little finger, brushing away membrane and stray thorns, the elaborate pattern of the shell is revealed, microscopic holes in perfect running scallops.
Gently scooped with fumbling fingers into waiting mouths, the ahinos roe sits waiting on the tongue. Like the creamy burst of an oyster, it explodes with rich, overwhelming sweetness, fishy and warm with umami. More delicate than its crustacean relatives, it is light, moreish, and I feel I could go on eating ahinos forever.
It is, says Andreas, my Greek host, exactly the taste of the sea.
But even for the locals, ahinos is an acquired taste, an expensive delicacy served across Greece, neat in shotglasses for €5 a pop, on salads, tossed with spaghetti.
The fishermen who collect the urchins for local dockside tavernas deposit them, oyster style, in glass fronted display cases, where a light drizzle of water keeps them fresh.
Here in nearby Amaliapolis, some dress ahinos with fresh lemon, others drape it over buttered pasta.
But I suspect ahinos should only be eaten like this, raw, honest, alive, with feet dangling in the sea, in the neighbourhood of the gods: a form of regard for a creature so beautiful that its consumption should reflect its perfection.
Each bite of our foraged feast feels like a ridiculous luxury.
Only one accompaniment seems appropriate to the broken spikes and urchin juice smeared on bare thighs: a chilled shotglass of clear local tsipouro, sipped slowly between mouthfuls, its curiously floral top note making the salty richness of the ocean even more all-consuming.
We drop the cracked remains into the water, our banquet over, as Parnassus revs the engine, leaving the debris of the carnage to melt into the sea floor.