Percebes (Gooseneck Barnacles)

Percebes in Portugal are expensive, hard to eat, and totally worth it.

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I still remember the first time I had percebes in Portugal, but the first time I had percebes period was in Spain, where they are also eaten, and also called percebes.  (Don’t let this fool you into thinking that Portugal and Spain are the same country, as I have pointed out before.) I was visiting Bilbao on a business trip, and my Spanish host asked if I had ever tried them.  They looked appalling, but turned out to be quite delicious.      
Percebes, or gooseneck barnacles (also known as goose barnacles, and pronounced per-SAY-besh in Portuguese), are a crustacean generally found growing from rocks along the ocean coastline of southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa, especially in areas with choppy waters.  They are called gooseneck or goose barnacles today because in medieval Europe, people believed black geese actually came from the barnacles: no one had ever seen the geese reproduce, and people thought the geese looked like the barnacles. 
barnacle goose
Barnacle Goose. Source: National Audubon Society.
Percebes. Source: My kitchen. The resemblance to geese is uncanny
Although it’s hard to believe that anybody could look at a bunch of percebes growing from a rock and think, “oooh, dinner,” they are considered a delicacy in Iberia and are rather expensive compared to other types of seafood.  This is because they are difficult to harvest, and tend to be an artisanal fishing affair.  (Insider Business has an interesting video on this.) A kilo of percebes (a little more than 2 pounds) runs about 100 euros, about US $109 currently.  By comparison, 2 pounds of Maine Lobster will cost around US $60 retail.
Of course, most people won’t be eating anywhere near 2 pounds of percebes.  Generally, they are ordered in much smaller portions as an appetizer, and the average marisqueira, or seafood restaurant, will sell them for around 20-25 euros a plate, or as part of a mix of other seafood appetizers.
Percebes in Portugal are usually steamed or boiled in salt water, although some people will sauté them.  The edible part of percebes is the stem – the part that medieval Europeans apparently thought looked like a goose neck – which is encased in a thin, canvas-like skin.  To prepare them, pinch the skin near the “claw” at the end, and slowly make a tear in the skin.  Do this slowly to avoid salt water spraying out and all over you.  Then, gently tug off the skin, and the finished product looks like this:    
percebe opened
Source: my plate
Then, to eat the percebes, put the exposed meat in your mouth while holding on to the claw and pull out the meat lightly with your teeth.  Voilà.  Many people compare the texture of percebes to lobster, but I find them much more similar to squid, since they are a tad chewy, but the taste is more briney.  Percebes make a fantastic, flavorful appetizer before a seafood dinner: small enough to whet your palate, mild enough not to overwhelm it.  They are also great as part of an evening of Portuguese petiscos (I compare petiscos to Spanish tapas here.) If you like raw clams or oysters, you’ll love percebes.
Smaller percebes like this one pictured above are pretty typical in restaurants, although percebes with longer necks have more meat and fetch a higher price.  Having purchased percebes in bulk to prepare at home that did have longer necks and substantially more meat, I have to confess to a percebes-lovers heresy: for me, there can be too much of a good thing.  Smaller-sized percebes, in a smaller portion, gives me be the taste I enjoy but without making me wish my plate was empty already.

The Verdict

I tried so you don’t have to, but I hope you do! 
Percebes are not for every budget, and if you are only willing to try one unusual thing from the Portuguese coast, go for whole grilled fish, like sardines,  which I’ve mentioned before are one of my favorite fish, but on your next trip back, make sure you give percebes a go.
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