Mendocino’s Urchin Fest Highlights a New Food Source

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Exploring the Van Damme Sate Beach tidepool. looking for an urchin in Mendocino, California.
Exploring the Van Damme State Beach tidepool. looking for an urchin in Mendocino, California.

If You Can’t Beat’Em, Eat ‘Em: Mendo’s First Urchin Fest

By Mary Charlebois

The first US sea urchin festival happens on California’s Mendocino Coast from June 17 through June 19, 2022.

Uni Chawanmushi at Harbor House Inn in Mendocino, California. urchin
Uni Chawanmushi at Harbor House Inn in Mendocino, California.

The Mendocino Urchin Fest will introduce the purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) as a food source. The festival will also tell the story of our kelp forests’ demise and its role in a balanced marine environment.

Coastal communities will bring together marine biologists, marine restorationists, divers, fishermen, and chefs for three days of uni sampling, pairing, harvesting, opening, and eating.

Why the purple urchin?

A purple urchin population explosion has happened along the eastern Pacific edge from Ensenada, Mexico, to British Columbia, Canada, in the last seven years. The spiny echinoderms have been devouring ancient kelp beds.

As a result, kelp forests have become ‘urchin barrens.’ With the kelp disappearing, sustenance and habitat for lower inter-tidal and nearshore sub-tidal inhabitants are gone. Small crustaceans, abalone, and sea stars have vanished from the Mendocino coastal waters.

The Mendocino County’s coast has wholly lost its large productive kelp beds. In the last seven years, scientists, fishermen, divers, marine specialists, and citizens have worked to find solutions to restore the coastal kelp forest and marine creatures while diminishing the purple urchin population.

Eating the urchins was a logical choice. The larger red and green urchins are popular in many cultures. Primary consumers are Japan, Chile, the Mediterranean, France, and the US West Coast.

Purple urchin harvest from the Mendocino Coast.
Purple urchin harvest from the Mendocino Coast.

What’s an urchin fest?

The Mendocino Urchin Fest will introduce folks to harvesting, cleaning, cooking, and eating the purple urchin. Marine-scientist, chefs, divers, restaurants, hotels, and community members are joining to share the delicious purple urchin and show folks the coast’s complex and delicate marine environment.

There will be demonstrations, pairings, and tastings featuring purple urchins. An outdoor uni opening demonstration is one of the many highlights culminating with a five-course purple urchin tasting menu, including urchin sushi. Urchinomics and Chef Matthew Kammerer are hosting the event at Michelin-starred The Harbor House Inn in Elk.

At Van Damme State Beach, uni lovers or just the uni-curious can participate in a uni demo and an educational talk. You can get hands-on experience harvesting, opening, and cleaning urchins. In addition, experts will be on hand to discuss the impact the purple urchin has had on local fisheries.

Noyo Center for Marine Science plays a significant role in the urchin dilemma. They will be working at the science centers and off-site locations during the festival to help visitors explore urchins and the coastal marine environment.

Hospitality Bargains

Info Opening an urchin.
Opening an urchin. It’s not for the faint of heart!

Restaurants and fishmongers along the coast will be offering uni in several forms. Traditional and nouveau menu items can be expected. In addition, hotels have put together festival packages offering deep discounts or three nights for the price of two. The list of hospitality participants is still growing. Here are the latest—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 Point Arena’s Izakaya Gama.

Here’s a story about Cally Dym, owner/operator of Little River Inn and the developer of the urchin fest. Little River Inn—Stewards of the Land, Community, & Family

Getting to Mendocino Urchin Fest

DRIVE: Mendocino Coast is located on CA Hwy 1. Around 3-hours from Golden Gate Bridge, the best way from San Francisco is through Anderson Valley on Hwy 128. Fill your picnic basket at wineries, farm stands, and creameries for Anderson Valley vino, produce, meat, and cheese.

FLY: Charles M Shultz – Sonoma County Airport, STS, is in Santa Rosa, about a 2-hour drive. Further away are San Francisco and Sacramento. Each is about a 3.5—4-hour drive. Do you have an airplane? Fly into Little River Airport, KLLR.

A car will be your best option for the coast. However, public transit is available, and bike lanes on HWY 1 are well-traveled.

The Mendocino Urchin Fest is designed for uni lovers and the uni curious. So come to the Mendocino Coast and help us ‘beat um and eat um.’

The Mendocino Urchin Fest website has a complete list of educational programs, foodie experiences, and lodging packages. See dates, times, and ticket information online.