The wave-battered cliffs of the Iberian Atlantic coast are some of the wildest and most beautiful shores on earth. Jagged, slate-grey rocks rise dramatically from broiling iron waters, creating scenery that is as dramatic as it is dangerous. Even more insidious than the knife-like pinnacles that thrust through the surface are the thousands more that lie hidden below the surf. To make a living from the rocks requires nerves of steel and no small amount of skill.
The unseen hazards that lurk below the water have been common knowledge for centuries. More than 500 ships have been wrecked on the treacherous coastline since the 16th century and the seafaring residents of the region are all too aware of the perils posed by their homeland. But, despite the tragic history of death and danger, there are potential rewards that make this part of the world extra special.
The salt spattered nooks and crannies of the coast might seem like an unlikely place to find a foodie delicacy. At first glance, the hard, unyielding Galician granite looks cold and lifeless. Yet, at the point where the waves are at their most ferocious and where rising tides flood the rocks on a daily basis, survives one of Spain and Portugal’s most unusual yet most highly-prized ingredients.
Gooseneck barnacles are part of an ancient family of crustaceans that scratch a living on the battered coast. Clinging to the rocks and using primitive tentacles to filter food from the rushing surf, they thrive in environments where other creatures would soon be crushed into submission. Originally thought to be the eggs of barnacle geese in the days before we realised birds migrate, gooseneck barnacles are valued around the world for their intense and uniquely marine flavour. Said to be somewhere between a lobster and a clam, these creatures form the centrepiece of some of the most exciting seafood dishes on earth.
Though eating them is an unforgettable experience, getting hold of the barnacles can be a nightmare. As opposed to some other shellfish, gooseneck barnacles have resisted all attempts at artificial farming, so venturing into the surf is the only option for eager chefs. But, the perilous conditions coupled with the relative scarcity of the animals makes this an unenviable task. This is where the daredevil barnacle hunters come into their own.
Unlike other fishing techniques, there are no shortcuts to harvesting gooseneck barnacles. The inaccessible cliffs on which they thrive force brave fishermen to head out and harvest their catch by hand. Donning wetsuits and descending into the wild waters on a network of pulleys and cables, they expertly cut the barnacles from the rock, secure them in a basket and continue their task. Fishing partners - usually young sons - wait anxiously as experienced fathers dangle over the water. It is painful, perilous work.
Every fishing family from Spanish Galicia and Portuguese Sagres - the only two places where the barnacles can be found - has heard stories of unfortunate barnacle fishermen being swept away and drowned by the unforgiving Atlantic. Working in such proximity to jagged rocks and waves that can regularly top 20ft in height is always going to be dangerous. Every year, it is estimated that around five barnacle fishermen die in the pounding surf.
So hostile are the conditions that even the most experienced fishermen rely on circumstances beyond their control before they’ll even consider heading to the water. Since the most valuable specimens grow below the waterline, they can only be harvested when the tides are at their lowest. This means that prime gooseneck barnacle season coincides with the unusually low Easter and Spring tides. It is during these few short weeks that the fishermen wait for a lull in the weather and a calm sea, before scaling the rocks.
Many might think that the rewards of barnacle hunting cannot possibly stack up against the risks. However, their astonishing flavour and rarity mean that some fishermen can make upwards of €1,000 for a single day’s work in peak season. Percebes, as they are known locally, are highly sought after across Spain and Portugal and remain in high demand all year round. It may mean risking life and limb, but with potentially life-changing amounts of money on the table, it’s easy to see why some see the risks as worth it.
Though the dangers of being an Iberian barnacle fisherman are far from ideal, they are also what makes the harvest so valuable in the first place. As opposed to other, smaller and more sheltered populations around the world, these are nourished by the nutrient-rich waters of the North Atlantic. Pumped full of plankton and flushed by wildly churning ocean current, these special shellfish taste unlike anything else on earth. The risks may sometimes have tragic consequences but without them, the barnacle business would look very different indeed.