Never before have there been so many sea urchins on tables in Quebec than last week. The “Round Table” group of restaurateurs, formed this year, organized the delivery of several tons of this mainly exported marine animal. The collective continues its quest to have citizens appropriate, species by species, products from the St. Lawrence River that are still little or not consumed in Quebec.
“When we got them, they had been caught for less than 24 hours,” says chef and co-owner of Vin Mon Lapin Marc-Olivier Frappier, admiring the quality of the sea urchins currently on his menu.
Sitting on a banquette in his cozy gourmet restaurant, he makes a hat-shaped incision in one of the spiny green echinoderms to demonstrate how to open and clean them.
“They’re really good, so the most fun way is to eat them raw,” Frappier says. The latter serves the gonads, the orange part of the beast that people eat, on a fried tomato bun. He also sometimes uses them in pasta. “We make a sauce from sea urchins, and put raw ones on top. It’s a great way to start,” he says.
It’s the first time so many restaurant owners from here — 105 in just one week — have been able to serve Quebec sea urchins, a resource that is nonetheless abundant in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Until this year, establishments had to go to great lengths to get hold of these somewhat menacing-looking sea urchins. They had to approach the fishermen themselves, who often work in Newfoundland or the northeastern United States, and pick up the harvest at the airport. The General Secretary of the Round Table, Félix-Antoine Joly-Coeur, emphasizes the investment of time and money, which was not within the power of everyone.
To remedy this situation, the collective entered into an agreement with the Wolastoqiyik Wahsipekuk First Nation of Cacouna. This Malisite community in Bas-Saint-Laurent catches about 20% of the sea urchins caught in Quebec.
“This is the cleanest fishing there is, very selective. Divers are hired to find the richest beds of sea urchins. You have to be able to read the vegetation to determine which ones will have the most gonads,” explains First Nation Director of Commercial Fisheries Guy-Pascal Weiner.
Until now, all of his sea urchin harvest was sold in the United States.
Exported St. Lawrence
“This project is possible because, on the one hand, we have experienced restaurateurs who want to serve this product, which is still complex and special for presentation, and on the other hand, there are fishermen who want to keep some for internal use. market. We lacked a wholesale distributor so that we could have a single account, and we found it,” emphasizes Mr. Weiner. This is the distribution company Norref, located in Montreal.
The Round Table does not intend to limit its activities to sea urchins. It should be said that according to the calculations of Blue Fork, a program that aims at the rational use of marine resources in the St. Lawrence, 81% of what is caught in the river is exported. And that Quebecers consume imported seafood en masse.
This is the purest fishing out there, very selective. Divers are hired to find the richest beds of sea urchins.
This is a situation that shocks Mr. Joly-Coeur. Round Table also launched a pilot project this summer to allow restaurants to serve stone crab, which the industry has shunned for years. “We thought Quebecers wouldn’t like it because it’s smaller and we’re tied to the snow crab. But the flesh is even thinner and sweeter,” he says.
A large number of species may soon be in the team’s field of vision, including several species of fish, as well as squid, clams and sea cucumbers. According to Mr. Joly-Coeur, the perception that Quebecers don’t want it needs to be changed.
Chef Marc-Olivier Frappier also notes that the stone crab and sea urchin have been a hit with his customers. “It’s crazy how popular it is. Sea urchins, we’ve ordered 40 pounds this week, 60 pounds next week, and I’ll continue to get shipments every week until Christmas, if I understand correctly,” he says.
Distributor Norref says 5,000 pounds of sea urchins will be delivered in two weeks and hopes to supply about 3,000 a week by the end of the season.