Barnacles

We celebrated the end of our time in Salinas with a dinner out. We’d tried hard to stay on budget during our week there, making picnics for the beach, eating fish from the market, revelling in having our own kitchen. Now it was time to live a little. Salinas hadn’t shown much promise in terms of restaurants but we weren’t fussy.

Menna chose us a place that had been recommended by nervous Maite, our AirBnB host. El Real Balneario de Salinas, at the end of the boardwalk, beautifully situated right on the sea front.

As soon as we walk in I realise we have misjudged this. Dim lighting, lush carpets, a expensive bronze statue of a lobster uplit on a mahogany coffee table. A small crowd of waiters coalesces around us and we are greeted in warm but hushed tones, Arthur’s skateboard is whisked away, we are ushered to our seats, two glasses of champagne materialise. I didn’t think that Salinas had this kind of restaurant.

Luckily we’re ‘dressed up’ which means that Arthur isn’t bare chested and I have a crumpled shirt on. We are in flip-flops though and our feet are sandy from the beach. Matilda wears her new skirt from the market which is several sizes too big and is gathered in with a belt, her hair is wild and her eyes flash danger. I myself haven’t had a haircut since lockdown started and I’ve given up trimming my beard too. More than this, I have been cultivating some spectacular ear hair which has already been attracting a lot of admiration around Salinas. I see the waiter clock it, his eyebrows raise a quarter inch before he can compose himself.

We are like a family of mariachi gypsies who have left their wooden caravan to sign a reality tv contract with Simon Cowell. Only he hasn’t shown up.

We haven’t been in a restaurant together since the day before lockdown was announced in the UK – some five months ago – and it appears that that all sense of dining etiquette has left our kids. They run between tables of murmuring businessmen and Spanish aristocracy, shouting random observations back at us. They find a tank of lobsters and crabs at the back of the room and immediately start trying to touch them, then fish them out. I go over to tell them off but somehow get sucked into the game.

Our waiter weaves a passionate story about the specials. We nod encouragingly and smile, understanding little of the shellfish terminology. He’s very keen to make his point though, so he repeats it in English.
“The chef recommends the percebes, they are very fine this year. Very special indeed.” Seeing our confusion, “I think in English, you call them barnacles.”
Barnacles? Surely not. Clams maybe. Whelks even. We check Google and they are indeed barnacles. I still have a delicate stomach and this doesn’t appeal.
“I think we’ll share some of the jamón and perhaps a plate of the croquetas to start thanks my man.”
“But the barnacles are truly very special and it is a typical plate of the region. Perhaps I might suggest just a half portion to share.”
We get a half portion of barnacles to share.

By the time the starters arrive the kids have wolfed down two baskets of fine bread rolls and aren’t really hungry any more. This is a shame, as we have now been served a large platter of very expensive acorn-fed smoked pig and a silver plate where 12 golden croquettes nestle invitingly upon a delicate floral arrangement.

Then the barnacles arrive.

I was expecting some little innocuous round shells, of the type that cling to rocks or boat keels, but that is not what we got. The Gooseneck Barnacle (Pollicipes pollicipes) is a dark, crusted tentacle topped with a white shell claw, and it looks much like a gnarled old witches’ finger. I pick one up and play with it for a while, totally at a loss what to do. A waiter appears at my elbow, smiling indulgently, and gives us a short lesson on how to cut, twist, break and suck out the interior worm of mollusc that is hidden within each hairy warted tube. We find out too late that they squirt out a salty emission when you breach them. I get a jet in my face, Menna’s dress is soon covered with a fine spray of barnacle juice, the table cloth is a mess. We make such a hash of it in fact, that a new waiter appears ten minutes later to give us another tutorial. I think they were all watching us from behind a two way mirror. The barnacles are nice in a salty kind of way, but we give up on them before the plate is finished.

The meal was long and varied, the service attentive, the cuisine fantastic. We had way over-ordered and as I suffer from a compulsion which means I cannot bear to leave food on the table (except eggs and barnacles), I eat an extraordinary amount that night. Monkfish parcels, hake meunière, melting tenderloin steaks, strange amuse-bouches, strawberry millefueille with almond ice cream fondant.

The bill when it came was roughly equivalent to our entire living budget for two weeks. I was pleased to note that the half portion of barnacles was the highlight, coming in at a sweet €100. I speculated to the waiter that the grease spots on Menna’s dress were probably worth a euro each.

We strolled home along the beach under a beautiful sunset. Menna and I argued all the way.

The postscript to this story is that gooseneck barnacles suddenly began to permeate our lives. A barnacle necklace would catch our eye in a boutique window as we strolled past, we would see graffiti on an ally wall, stumble across an Instagram hashtag, even, most gallingly, find whole clusters of them flourishing wild (and free!) on the rocks by the sea. I was tempted to gather a bunch and go sell them back to the restaurant.

Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!

Captain Haddock

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