Sicilians absolutely love sea urchins – as food, rather than as wildlife. They crack them open and eat them raw by scooping their insides out with a piece of bread.
This is why, off many parts of the Sicilian coast, sea urchins are becoming rare.
We went to the stunning Lo Zingaro nature reserve at the weekend, and a friend went diving. He said the sea was practically empty. There were a few plants and just one single sea urchin, cowering in fear of hungry Sicilians.
This one is upside-down. It tried to bite our fingers with its five “teeth” when we touched them. Its little spines were slowly waving about, probably trying to work out where it was and why it could not walk.
In some other parts of Italy, people think they are poisonous and never touch them. When my brother-in-law went diving near Ostia, he found kilometres of the sea bed carpeted with them. He harvested hundreds, despite the fact that his Roman friends thought he would die.
This is cracked open and ready to eat.
A lot of water runs out when you open them. Sicilians call these large, reddish sea urchins “females.” There is also a smaller, more common black type of sea urchin which they call the “male,” which has far less inside it.
I taught English to a marine biologist who told me that, in reality, they are two completely different species of sea urchin, and it is almost impossible to distinguish the male from the female in either species.
Here you can see the teeth, which are very large inside the animal.
Both types creep around slowly on the sea bed, eating small starfish and other small animals, and being eaten by larger starfish. Sicilians call the orange part “eggs” and the black part “poop”. But the marine biologist told me the orange is not eggs, and the black is not poop. Which I am glad about, since my hubby ate it.