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Lucifer’s Fingers – A Rare and Potentially Deadly Delicacy of the Sea

Because to their thick, finger-like trunks and their eerie claw-like feet, the gooseneck barnacles growing on the rocks of Portugal’s most south-western coastline are known as Lucifer’s Fingers. They are sometimes referred to as the truffles of the sea, both because of their rarity and high price, but also because of how hard and risky they are to harvest.

Restaurants in Portugal and Spain charge up to $115 for a plate of Lucifer’s Fingers, which may sound sound outrageously expensive two some people, but is justified by their rarity and the dangers barnacle hunters expose themselves to when harvesting them. Lucifer’s Fingers, or percebes, cannot be farmed and only thrive on the on rocks in the ocean intertidal zone, where crashing waves provide them with plankton. This makes them notoriously dangerous to harvest, with hunters risking getting crushed against the rocks by crashing waves, or being rendered unconscious by the impact and drowning. The lucky ones escape with broken limbs or severe abrasions.

Photo: Msadp06/Wikimedia Commons

“Never turn your back on God when you dive for Lucifer’s fingers,” commercial diver João Rosário told BBC last year. “When you dive for percebes and you turn your back on the unpredictability of the ocean, you will most likely be injured or killed. There are many cases of divers being knocked unconscious and drowning. The ‘lucky ones’ get away with breaking an arm or leg or suffering abrasions where the rocks cut through their wetsuits.”

Photo: © Hans Hillewaert/Wikimedia Commons

Percebes hunters basically have to options; either swing down from 100-meter-high-cliffs with a rope and chiseling off at Lucifer’s Fingers during low tide, but risk getting crushed by breaking waves, or approach the rocks by boat, anchor at a safe distance and swim towards the cliff face, timing their chiseling to match the rhythm of the sea. Each option has its risks and hunters have yet to agree on which one is the safest.

 

Lucifer’s Fingers harvesting is a regulated business in Portugal, with only 80 diving licenses issued each year, and a maximum daily harvesting quota of 15 kg per diver. Depending on quality and size, a kilo of percebes can fetch between 30 and 60 euros. Because of their high price, poaching is a serious issue along Portugal’s Costa Vicentina, and the police can’t patrol everywhere at the same time. Locals consider these delicacies as their “ATM in the sea” and see it as their right to make withdrawals whenever they want, whether authorities like it or not.

 

So are Lucifer’s Fingers worth $115 per serving? Well, despite their name and unappetizing appearance, they are considered delicacies by sea food lovers who swear that the title of “truffles of the sea” is not wasted on them. As for how to cook them, the Portuguese generally agree that there is only one correct way to do it: boiling them in salt water for as long as it takes you to say the Lord’s Prayer, which in this case sounds appropriate. It shouldn’t take longer than minute, after which they should be spooned on ice to stop the cooking process. Then they are ready to serve. Enjoy!

 

Commercially viable gooseneck barnacles are also being harvested on the coast of Vancouver Island, in Canada, but it’s a small scale operation compared to Spain and Portugal.