Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Humble Limpet (Petalida): A Treasure of the Sea (Η Tαπεινή Πεταλίδα)

Limpets and OuzoLimpets tightly adhere to rocks in shallow water where the sea meets the shore. They’re found throughout the Mediterranean, and on rocky coastlines around the world.

As a kid growing up on Puget Sound, I gathered limpets’ domed, pointed shells for my shell collection and marveled at their pearlescent undersides. The thought of eating them never crossed my mind.

Then I spent a year on a Greek island in the Northern Aegean Sea.

On a winter afternoon over twenty years ago, my husband returned from a seaside gathering expedition with his cousin Zafiris. Between them, they’d accumulated two giant sacks of sea urchins and a little bag of limpets.

LimpetsI recognized the limpets immediately but couldn’t fathom why two grown men would gather them. “They’re called petalides” my husband said. “Try one, they’re edible.” He pulled out two limpets the size of half-dollars and wiped algae off the undulating brown feet with a corner of his shirt.

He used the edge of one shell to scrape out the body of the other. “Here,” he said, holding up the shell with the freed limpet. I hesitated. “They’re great!” My husband applied a squeeze of lemon to the limpet, which caused it to recoil and contract. When I still hesitated, he popped the limpet in his mouth and smiled, “Mmm, so good. Better than clams. They taste of the sea.”

Both men smelled of ouzo, which did little to enhance their credibility. It was only after Froso, whose food judgment I trust without question, confirmed their edibility that I slurped its contents into my mouth. Chewing the limpet released a sweet sea flavor, more luscious and delicate than clams and more meaty than oysters, but embracing the deliciousness of both.

“Good meze,” Froso pronounced. “Perfect with ouzo,” Zafiris said, raising his glass. “Yamas!”** “Let’s go get some more,” said I.

Gathering LimpetsIt takes good balance to gather limpets. The rocks on which they live are slippery with algae; breaking waves make the rocks even more treacherous.

The top of limpets’ shells can also be covered with algae, making them tricky to find. At night, limpets graze over the rocks, returning to the same spot every morning. One trick to finding them is to look for a meandering path of cleared algae leading to a small bump that is otherwise indistinguishable from the surrounding rock.

Gathering Limpets
Hunting for Limpets, Knife at the Ready

When you spot a limpet, if you look closely, there’s a small gap between its shell and the rock. If you deftly slide a thin knife blade under the shell and along the rock’s surface, the limpet will pop right off. If you fumble and miss the gap or touch the shell, the limpet sucks its shell tightly to the rock. Limpets fit the rocks so perfectly, and with such amazing force, they're impossible to dislodge. If this happens, it’s better to forget that limpet and look for another.

My husband loves the sea and gathering. No trip to the beach is complete without bringing something back: sea urchins, fish, octopus, little crabs, or wild thyme from the shores. After one of his more successful winter forays twenty-one years ago, we ate a pile of fresh-from-the-sea raw limpets dressed only with a squeeze of lemon.

The next day we still had a bowel of live limpets residing in the refrigerator. We decided to try a variation of the Constantino family recipe for Clams Casino. The family tops raw clams on the half-shell with a small square of partially cooked smoked bacon, a dash of Tabasco, and a squeeze of lemon. The clams are then broiled until the bacon curls and slightly browns on the edges.

That winter, we were living in a stone house facing a wind-blown harbor with just an oil drip stove (soba – σόμπα in Greek) for heat. The stove heated only one room, but its hot cast-iron top made a convenient-cooking surface. Since we didn’t have a broiler, we used the stove-top to cook the limpets from below. Though the bacon wasn’t crispy, the married flavor of sea, smoke, pork fat, lemon, and Tabasco was indescribably delicious.

Limpets Casino on the GrillAll these years later, as soon as we arrive on the island and the jetlag wears off, we head straight to the beach with a loaf of bread, some olives, and a bottle of ouzo. We gather a bag of limpets and eat our fill. The next day, we feast on Limpets Casino. Even though we now have a broiler, we use the outdoor grill to cook them from below.

As Zafiris said, limpets are perfect with ouzo, raw or cooked. Yamas!

**”Yamas” is a common Greek toast, and is a contraction of the phrase “Stin ygeia mas” (Στην υγεία μας) which means “to our health.”


Mediterranean kiwi said...

thanks for this post - it reminds me of why warm weather is a good thing after all
i've seen limpets on rocks, but just don't feel like collecting them (another source of food that i should really try out)

Peter G said...

Great post Laurie. Have never heard of these before but I can see the similarities with clams. The casino recipe sounds divine!

Peter M said...

I've seen them stuck to rocks in Halkidiki but nothing this big and now I know what they are called.

Next year, I search for bigger ones to pick-off and eat...thanks my dear!

Núria said...

Laurie, how I love all your stories!!!!!
This doesn't sound new to me :D. My father always tell us that when he was young and went to the beach with his friends, they would always pick limpeds from the rocks and eat them right there! He describes the flavour and taste just like you do... but they didn't have any orzo to drink... he, he. We cannot find many limpeds nowadays... too sad!

FOODalogue: Meandering Meals and Travels said...

What an interesting post -- and photolog!

Bellini Valli said...

Yamas!!!!!! I live 5 hours from the ocean so no limpets within any distance at all. I wonder if I would ever see them at my fishmongers?Loved your story...what a great way to start my day!!

History of Greek Food said...

Reading your story a gentle Aegean breeze blew through me house.
Να 'σαι καλά Λώρη μου.

Susan said...

I'm having an ah-ha moment. While on my honeymoon in Maine, I took many photos of these creatures in tidal pools, some as tiny as fingernails. Didn't know what they were, but thought them beautiful.

Lyrical post, Laurie.

Cheryl said...

Oh, I just loved reading this! Funny, I've never seen my husband collect these. But, it's probably one of those things I'll mention and he'll go "oh yeah, we ate those sometimes"....that's what happened with the ahoinoi...I never saw him eat one, we've stepped on them, but never eaten them...and one day they were served to us and he was right at home. ??? Gosh, sometimes you think you know someone and then the seafood throws you for a loop!

Laurie Constantino said...

Maria, warm weather is a VERY good thing; trust me on this one.

Peter G, like I and most everyone else always says, everything's better with bacon.

Peter M, yes it's important to look for the big ones. The tiny ones are barely a mouthful.

Nuria, ok you can drink wine instead!!! If you go looking for limpets, you may find more than you think - they're awfully good at the art of camoflage!

Joan, thank you!

Val, Yamas!!! I don't think you'll ever find limpets at a fishmonger's - they're one of those things that take so long to gather I can't imagine they're commercially viable.

Mariana, despite the snow outside, that Aegean breeze was in my house too!

Susan, if you ever go again, now you'll have to try them.

Cheryl, Greece is full of wonderful seafood. I've only ever had one kind I didn't like - it's the sea squirt, called Φούσκα in Greek. To me, it tasted really nasty, like a mouthful of iodine. I wonder if your husband likes them??

Bijoux said...

I have never tried eating limpets but have seen them moving around after they've been removed from the rocks near Aghia Kuriaki. Let's just say I was not compelled to pop one in my mouth a la carte LOL. I'm quite squeamish with certain foods that will jiggle and move while you try to eat them. Of course, my mother will eat just about anything that comes from the sea, except maybe jellyfish :D

panole8riambos said...

Great blog Laurie.
If I am allowed for a suggestion here: You should try also petalides with rice.
Its a wonderful ouzo-mezes.

Maria said...

Great post and lovely story. I've never tried petalides ... axinous and fouskes yes. Not too keen on the fouskes either, but they are a delicacy in Kalymnos and if I'm not mistaken are what go into what they call spinialo, which my grandparents and father love, love, love.

Shalimar said...
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Shalimar said...
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Shalimar said...

I ve seen them in Greece and some people gathering them.

I love watching people gathering limpets, urchins etc then eat them as soon they come out from the water.
There is something very primal in that picture.

syrie said...

Thanks for this really interesting post. I love your description of the limpets and I'd love to try one. They sound so fresh and delicious.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Love, love, love limpets! I scraped them off the rocks of Block Island, Rhode Island as a little boy. Back then, it was at least half watching the limpet recoil -- now it's all taste. They live on the rocks pretty much everywhere, although prolly not Alaska...

lexi said...

I can't believe you've posted on Petalides! So delicious!

Am a first-time visitor and wanted to let you know that your blog is excellent - has brought back many memories about Greece to me in Australia, via Alaska. Brilliant.


Anonymous said...

hey, we call 'em opihi in Hawaii. Love those sea urchins, too. Cross cultural food!

Shayne said...

I think this is one of my favorite blog stories and I would be out there cutting Limpets off the rock and popping them in my mouth in a heart beat.

Laurie Constantino said...

Bijoux, your mother is smart. But we both knew that! Next time, you should give a limpet a go; they really are tasty.

Panole8, great suggestion; petalides with rice does sound really good. Thanks.

Maria, fouskes may be the only seafood I really don't like - way too iodiny for me. Perhaps it's an acquired taste. I don't know about spinialo - I'd be interested to see if there is a way of eating fouskes that taste better than the last ones I had. Axinoi on the other hand, I'm totally in love with.

Sha, nothing better than thalassina fresh from the sea. And you're right, it is very primal.

Syrie, I hope you have the chance to try them one day!

Hank, yep, we have limpets in Alaska too. I think you're right that they're pretty much everywhere.

Lexi, thanks for stopping by! I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed the blog.

Anon, exactly!

Thank you Shayne. Next time you're near an ocean, you should keep your eyes peeled for limpets...

MAG said...

Limpets :)))) My favorites!!! I first got introduced to them the first time I visited Greece with my parents when I was 7! Then I noticed that we have them in Lebanon too. I love to squeeze lemon juice and slurp them out of the shell after they contract :) yummy!!!!!!

dina said...
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efi said...

hi laurie, i found your blog as i googled 'pork with quince' this morning. i have 2 kidonies in my orchard full of the fruit and i wanted a recipe. to my surprise and my infinite thanks to the net i found your recipe cming from alaska. which nothrn aegean island you spent your 1 year? i come from andros
your blog is fab, and i didnt know about olive magazine, i ll buy it now

Laurie Constantino said...

Hi Efi! So nice to hear from you! It's wonderful to hear you like my blog. Email me at tasteslikehome@hotmail.com and I'll write back and tell you about the island. Thanks so much for commenting!