The country’s first-ever festival dedicated to sea urchin, or more simply called uni in the culinary world, is taking place June 17th-19th in on the Mendocino Coast. As one of the biggest producers of uni in the world, and the coast’s largest city, Fort Bragg will be home to this weekend of uni.
This unique, three-day festival will feature some exceptional programming, including a big emphasis on education thanks to instructional demos and hands-on experiences hosted by the Mendocino Area Parks Association, Watermen’s Alliance, Noyo Science Center and Freedive Shop.
As a result of a series of unfortunate events, which has included increased temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which led to restricted growth of kelp; and a decline in the sea star population, a key predator of purple uni, the purple urchin population has exploded. This dramatic increase in population has wrecked havoc on the delicate, interwoven ecological web of the Pacific Ocean. The best solution now? Eat them.
“As a chef in today’s world, it is my job to choose more sustainable ingredients and showcase them to the public,” states Matthew Kammerer, Executive Chef at Harbor House Inn. “Chefs have more of a role in today’s food scene, where education about products, including why and how to use them can help shape the public’s dining perspective and have a positive outcome on future generations.”
Demos featured include an uni demo and educational talk at Van Damme State Beach where participants can sample fresh uni on the beach; learn how to harvest urchin; learn about the impact purple urchin has on other fisheries; and innovative solutions to the problem.
Another event is an in-depth look at the sea creatures of the California Coast and trailer preview of the upcoming film Sequoias of the Sea with the films producers and Sheila Semans, Executive Director of the Noyo Center for Marine Science.
Urchinomics, a restorative seafood company dedicated to restoring kelp forests by removing overgrazing barren sea urchins, feeding them on land, and selling them on to distributors and restaurants, will also be supplying select restaurant partners with uni for guests to enjoy.
Check out my experience at Ocean Fresh Seafood, one of the biggest uni processors in Fort Brag, here.
“Purple sea urchin has been on our menu since day one,” continues Kammerer. “We are proud to serve all local products but this one has extra meaning for us. Not just its flavor, but to help remove some urchin numbers from the ecosystem that is on the verge of collapsing.”
Throughout the festival, people will have the chance to enjoy special, uni-focused menus from iconic Mendocino Coast hotels, inns and restaurants, including The Harbor House Inn, Little River Inn, Noyo Harbor Inn, Glendeven Inn & Lodge, The Inn at The Cobbler’s Walk, Elk Cove Inn, Princess Seafood Market & Deli and Izakaya Gama in Point Arena.
“The current circumstances have given us an opportunity to experience uni from these less-popular but equally-tasty purples,” states Cally Dym, 5th generation owner of Little River Inn. “Fort Bragg has long been a major producer of sea urchin in the United States – but virtually all of the product has been shipped out of the area, and until recently not a single restaurant offered uni on their menu.
“With a growing understanding of local food sheds and local food webs, we think now is the perfect time to ‘Taste the Place’ and expand our understanding of the purple sea urchin.”
Standouts on select uni focused menus include:
Elk Cove Inn:
- Smoke Bonito flake consommé, Sea Lettuce emulsion, crispy Cucumber, Uni, Sake Ponzu glaze
- Uni Flan, light Lobster & Cognac sauce
- Butter-fried Brioche, Celeriac, Caviar, Uni cream sauce
- Uni and Rockfish velouté
- Rockfish filet, Champagne and Uni butter sauce, Parsnip mousseline
- Uni and Mussel Risotto, Porcini jus
- Homemade Dungeness Crab & Butterscotch squash ravioli, Uni & Cognac sauce
Harbor House Inn:
- Chopped Egg Custard with uni and dulse
- Seaweed Ice Cream and candied uni
Little River Inn:
- Uni Deviled Eggs with pickles
- Chawanmushi, a traditional savory Japanese custard with uni
- Arancini filled with uni bechamel
Glendeven Inn & Lodge; and Inn at Cobbler’s Walk:
- Breakfast “uni scramble”
- Uni pasta
Noyo Harbor Inn’s Harbor View Bistro & Bar:
- Seafood Chowder with uni crostini
Princess Seafood Market & Restaurant:
- BBQ Humboldt Bay oyster topped with uni butter
- Live urchin and trays of uni
We chatted with Little River Inn chefs, Chef Marc Dym, Sous Chef Jenny MacDonald and Lead Line Cook Joe Perez; as well as David Hopps of Izakaya Gama, all of which will be showcasing their sea urchin dishes during the festival. Here’s what they had to say.
What do you love about uni? And more specifically, what do you love about cooking with uni?
Marc: They have a clean, briny flavor. Tastes like you’re in a kelp bed. I also like the silky texture. I love cooking with them because of the obscurity- they’re not mainstream.
Jenny: I love the brininess of uni. It gives dishes such a unique flavor.
Joe: I like the richness and versatility of uni. And the sweetness. I’ve eaten it in many variations from sashimi to blended into sauces.
David: I really appreciate its subtle sweetness and luxurious texture. Uni is one of those bites that’s perfect all on its own.
Uni can be an intimidating thing to eat, how would you describe it? What’s your advice for someone trying it for the first time?
Marc: Try to envision eating something that smells and feels like being in the ocean.
Joe: Keep an open mind and adventurous mindset, especially if you’ve researched it and know what you’re eating. You don’t know if don’t like it until you try it.
David: To me, uni tastes like the ocean. It has a silky texture and delicate sweetness that reminds me of taking a deep breathe on the cliffs by my house. My advice for folks would be to try it from a trusted source, and maybe start with small bites.
What uni dishes are you most excited about? Why?
Marc: For this festival I’m excited about fusing the Japanese flavors into the Italian arancini dish.
Jenny: I’m excited about all of them!
Joe: The uni deviled egg is going to be a fun experiment. I think the flavors will align well together. I’m also excited to try Marc’s chawanmushi.
David: Chawanmushi is one of my favorite dishes. It’s a steamed, savory egg custard that can be topped with uni. They compliment each other beautifully. Because we have such beautiful vegetables on the coast, I also love to make uni hishio, which is a dipping sauce made of sea urchin.
Talk about why we should be eating more uni.
Marc: It’s good for the ecosystem.
Jenny: To save the kelp forests and because they’re delicious. Good for the planet and good for your belly.
Joe: Urchin is very sustainable. The more exposure it has the more people will like it. Perhaps it could become an alternative to overfishing our ocean.
David: We should be eating more purple urchin specifically. It has had a huge impact on the kelp and abalone populations. Also, it’s delicious!
To find out more about about the Mendocino Sea Urchin Festival, click here.
For more info on what to eat, see and do in Mendocino County, click here, here and here.