A 30-knot north wind builds along the northeast coastline of Maine and the seas rise to a choppy 8 feet. Snow falls sideways; nearly 2 inches of it since first light on this early spring day. Rob Odlin, a commercial fisherman, sits in the cockpit of his 36-foot boat, the Maine Lady III. He’s half-dressed in a dry suit, staring at the floor like a boxer before a title fight. Odlin is preparing to dive 40 feet in 33-degree water to fetch the green sea urchin—the spiky jewel of the echinoderm family.
Hidden inside the well-armored exterior is the bright orange roe of the urchin, a creamy extravagance and one of the richest flavors to emerge from a shelled creature, which is why it’s in high demand. One chef who has mastered the urchin’s potential is Michael White, a broad Midwesterner of Norwegian descent who fell in love with Italian food, becoming the celebrated chef-proprietor of Manhattan’s Alto, Convivio and the just-opening Marea. With the urchin, a common ingredient in southern Italy, he focuses on the sweetness and texture when using it in his pastas. That lauded texture is only a touch firmer than pudding, and the deep sweetness comes from the creature’s diet of ocean vegetation (kelp and seaweed). But White must get them close to home: “They are very, very delicate,” he says. Within about three days the roe will deteriorate.
The wind gusts and rattles the windshield like a passing train. “Putting on the neck ring of the suit, that’s the worst. I usually get this far and then procrastinate for 30 minutes before forcing it on,” Odlin says. Once he gets dressed, he’ll spend five hours on the ocean floor (with the odd 10-minute break), breathe through six air tanks and rake in over 1,200 pounds of urchins. The urchin fishing season is tightly regulated, with divers allowed to fish three days a week from September to March. (Red urchins, cousins to the green, are harvested until May in the Pacific.) The weather is never pleasant. Odlin looks up with a smile and taps an iPod earbud. “Classic Guns N’ Roses. ‘Use Your Illusion I,’ ” he says and stands up. “Let’s get this over with.”
Odlin sprinkles baby powder around the latex seal and tugs it over his head. (It’s like watching a farm animal being born.) His first mate, Rob Kurka, helps strap on Odlin’s weight belt and air tanks, and they load into a skiff and motor to the edge of a rocky island. Odlin looks at the rolling swells, searching for a reason not to go in. He rocks back, rolls over the gunwale into the water, and his workday begins.
At this time of year, the urchins feast on kelp beds and prepare to spawn. It’s during this reproductive cycle that the urchin are edible. Although it’s called “roe,” since the orange blobs do resemble fish egg sacs, diners are actually feasting on the urchin’s five sex organs, the gonads—one of the reasons this seafood is considered an aphrodisiac.
Twenty years ago, Maine’s urchins were the scourge of fisheries, their value unknown until sushi chef Atchan Tamaki, a Japanese native, arrived in Portland. “The lobstermen would fill oil drums with the urchins and burn them,” he says. But Tamaki hired them to bring him the spiky balls, and he started shipping them to sushi contacts in Japan. Now his market is 80 percent domestic, and urchins are one of Maine’s aquatic cash crops.
Tamaki taught Odlin about the quality he wanted: The urchins should smell sweet and briny, like seawater; they should be 3 to 4 years old, 2 to 3 inches wide; the color of the roe should be bright.