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This story has been adapted from Grape Olive Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture, available from HarperWave beginning Nov. 15.
A single voice rises up above the churn of the Atlantic: A man is down and he’s being swept out to sea.
Everyone, a dozen people at least, has dropped their gear and is making their way down the coast as quickly as possible, which isn’t nearly quick enough. Suddenly, on the inside track, bounding from one rocky precipice to the next like a pair of mountain goats, two women in wet suits break away from the pack: one short, compact, with a bouncing blond ponytail, the other large and solid with a bob of crinkled red hair. Without breaking stride, the larger woman pulls a rope from her pack and ties a loop at the end. Twenty meters beyond, in a rough channel of ocean churn, a portly fisherman in a checkered shirt is clinging to a triangle of quickly vanishing stone. Even from this far away, you can see his arms shaking, struggling to hold on as the force of the ocean sucks him out toward the horizon.
The women loop the rope around a rocky appendage and take off swimming toward the man and his diminishing island. Another man joins them, and together, the three lasso the fisherman, wrap him in their arms, and begin to swim him slowly back across the channel.
A dozen hands wait on the other side. An ambulance arrives to take away the man, who will live to fish another day. While spearing for octopus on a rough outcropping of rocks, a rogue wave came in and washed him off his feet. Had he been alone this morning, the taller woman says, picking up her gear and getting back to work, he would be dead.
Then the shorter one flashes a little smile. “He’s famous around here for being a machista,” she says. “Imagine that: A raging chauvinist saved by a couple of women. It will be a long time before he lives this down.”
Susana and Isabel González are not just “a couple of women.” They are percebeiras, hunters and gatherers of the gooseneck barnacle of the Spanish Atlantic.
Tucked into the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, Galicia has long been shorthand for Spanish seafood supremacy, a distribution center as much as a destination, a fountain from which flows the most sterling examples of rockfish and razor clams, oysters and urchins, monkfish and mussels. Anything from Galicia commands premium prices in Spain and beyond, but the king of the ocean here, at least by the time it lands on the ice beds of wet markets across the country, is the gooseneck barnacle, known in Spanish as the percebe.
Galician barnacles are short and slender with a hard, rocky base and a dark, leathery sheath hiding a single finger of ocean meat that drives Spaniards wild. Boiled briefly and seasoned with nothing but the essence of the ocean, percebes combine the same wave of umami and undertow of sweetness particular to all great seafood, only in a dense package with a taut, snappy texture. In a country where people are willing to invest an imprudent percentage of their income on ocean treasure—Catalonian red shrimp, Asturian spider crabs, Cantabrian anchovies—percebes can fetch up to 200 euros per kilo, nearly half of which is inedible, making it one of the most expensive delicacies in the world.
The elevated price reflects a confluence of both market and organic factors: the un- predictability of supply, the uncontrollable elements that create quality barnacles, the massive seasonal swings in demand. And, above all, the danger of being a percebeiro. Barnacles grow in very specific places: namely, clinging to the sides of sharp rocks with full exposure to ocean swells. To be a successful percebes hunter, you must negotiate a series of natural challenges—frigid water temperatures, the fierce Galician weather, and the force and unpredictability of the ocean at its angriest. Almost everyone living in these coastal towns has lost a friend or a family member to the Atlantic.
The González sisters have the barnacle business in their blood. Both of their grandmothers were percebeiras, women who scratched out a living from the cracks and crevices of the Atlantic coast. Their maternal grandfather was called on to fight with Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and though he made it home alive, he never fully returned. With eight children and a local economy driven exclusively by farming and fishing, his wife took to the rocks to feed the family. After collecting a cache of percebes, she would travel 30 kilometers up the coast to Vigo with baskets of barnacles on her head to sell at the city market.
Her only daughter Palmira, Susana and Isabel’s mother, took up barnacle hunting at a young age. Palmira would ride her bicycle down the coastline with her mother packed on the back in search of a decent living. She spent so much time between the spokes and the stones, riding up and down the coast in search of barnacles, that she lost her first baby to a miscarriage. The doctors implored her to give up percebes hunting the next time she got pregnant.
In 1963 Palmira married Eduardo, one of Bayona’s most famous percebeiros, a man known for his bravery in tough conditions, his intuition, and for a rare skill among the percebes hunters of his day: He knew how to swim. “There was one rock along the coast- line that was known to be covered with the best barnacles in the area,” says Isabel. “No one could get to it—nobody except my dad. He was a water buffalo, fearless, immovable. When his friends came back with 10 kilos, he’d come back with 20.” But it wasn’t just his skill that earned him repute. Eduardo was known for his humility, for his unwavering support of his fellow percebeiros, for risking his life in the name of others: “He saved a lot of lives, but he also saw a lot of friends die.”
Eduardo always said he wanted to have a son so that he could raise a respected percebeiro in his image. Instead, he had four daughters. “We were all born at home,” says Isabel. “When the wet nurse came in to announce the last birth, he nearly dropped his coffee. ‘Wow, another one!’ ”
Lala, Isabel, Susana, and Belén: the González sisters of Galicia, born—in that order—with the ocean in their eyes. But the barnacle world wasn’t a preordained destination. Each sister set out on a different career path. Lala owned a food market, then worked as a pastry chef in a local bakery. Isabel sweated out years as a line cook at a small tapas bar in Bayona. Susana was an administrator for a pharmaceutical company.
But the siren call of the sea proved too much to resist, and by the time Belén left her job working retail at a local market, all four of the sisters had gone the way of their grandmothers. They embraced an unspoken pact: to always work the rocks together, to watch over each other in the way that only family members can. Together, they would form a team stronger than the sum of its parts. And in that way, they’d stay safe. “The first thing we’ve always done when leaving the water is call our mom to tell her we’re safe,” says Susana.
But it turned out their biggest challenge wasn’t the whims of the sea, but the colleagues they worked alongside. The plump octopus fisherman was not the first machista the sisters have wrapped their arms around. Barnacle diving, like the fishing industry the world over, is a male-dominated profession, even if this southern corner of Galicia has a long tradition of women working the rocks.
For as long as barnacle sales have been regulated by the government, women and men have been treated differently: For many years, men were allowed a quota of 5 kilograms of percebes per day, while women were allowed just 3. And when it came time to sell the barnacles in the afternoon auction, the two groups were separated, with women only allowed to sell their catch once the men had offloaded theirs.
We’re not talking about the 1920s or the 1950s or even the last few decades of the 20th century. This practice persisted until 2003, when Susana decided to run for president of Bayona’s percebes association. This is no mere ceremonial role: The president works to implement new rules, enforce quotas, serves as a conduit between the percebeiros and the Galicia regional government. Needless to say, her candidacy was not well-received by the old male guard on the docks of Bayona, many still possessed by the same laws of machismo that prevail in many corners of Spain. Protests formed, threats followed. Even many of the women divers, long accustomed to the established hierarchy, viewed Susana’s ambitions as an unnecessary challenge to the status quo.
As her sisters and parents, and pretty much anyone in this town of 3,000 inhabitants will tell you, Susana does not back down from a challenge. When she was 11 years old, she canvassed middle-school administrators to change the lunch rules so that boys and girls could all eat together. “I don’t have more rights than anyone. But I don’t have less, either” is her credo. She’s let that conviction carry her from one cause in life to the next. When she left her job to work the rocks, she fell instantly in love with almost everything about her new profession: the open air, the ever-changing office space, the sisterly camaraderie. But she didn’t love the way she and her fellow women were treated.
“Imagine, most of these guys go home, slam their hands on the table, and watch their wives obey their commands. They wanted us to do the same, but that wasn’t going to happen.”
The campaign was tough on the family, on all of Bayona, really, because Bayona is the kind of small Spanish town where individual pains are felt as communal wounds, but Susana prevailed, winning 65 votes to her opponent’s 55 on the back of a late tide of support from Bayona’s female divers. The tensions stirred up during the elections, though, died hard: “During the first meetings, the national police force had to send out a patrol unit to keep the peace. The men would insult us, threaten us, try to intimidate us.”
The breaking point came when Susana announced that men and women would have equal quotas: “Tables were turned over. Chairs flew. They said that we were stealing their livelihood. That as women, we didn’t need to provide for our families—only they did. We came to the percebes world to bankroll our vices, to buy makeup and creams. Those were a rough three or four years.”
Susana wasn’t done, though. In 2014, she ran a successful campaign to become president of the Cofradía de Bayona, overseeing all fishing—crab, octopus, sea urchin—in the town’s 20-kilometer stretch of coastline.
In an extra blow to the old guard, Susana’s vacated seat as the president of the percebeiros was soon filled by another González—her older sister, Isabel.
* * *
“How do you see it?” asks Isabel. “Do you think we can work the rock today?”
“Right now it looks good,” says Susana.
“But I’m not sure we’ve seen what the sea can really do yet.”
They’ve brought a wetsuit for me today—like their own, shot through with holes from years of use—and together we plunge into the water and cross the narrow ocean channel to the pointed rock island peaking just above the tide. Thirty meters long and 10 meters deep, it’s a small space for a dozen to share.
Complicating matters, barnacles grow best where the elements—sun, rain, wind, sea—converge, which means the best places for picking are also the most treacherous: slippery surfaces; sheer rock faces; dark, hard shelves that are swallowed whole with each ocean swell. Two hours to the north, where the biggest barnacles grow, percebeiros hang from cliffs attached to ropes, scraping barnacles as waves smash them into the razor-edged rocks. The most important technique of percebeiros everywhere is the pick-and-run: to collect a handful of barnacles from the edges of the rocks as the tide ebbs and escape before the next wave rolls in. “If you fall into the ocean and it spits you back out onto land, then you’re one of the lucky ones,” says Susana.
The sisters start slowly, working together in a tight formation in the relative safety of the center of the island. Eventually, they fan out, working their way toward the more perilous parts where the good stuff hides. Even then, they have an ingrained system of collective vigilance, one sister watching the sea swells as the other two work with their heads down. When she sees something forming that she doesn’t like, she’ll give an advanced warning. As a swell picks up steam, her verbal cues grow accordingly—from forecast to suggestion to pointed demand. “Isabel, get the hell out of there now!”
The raspa is the one absolutely indispensible tool of the percebeiro, a thick wooden stick with an iron knife at the end that allows the hunters to scrape the barnacles cleanly from the rocks. The raspa gets so much use that the sisters take theirs to a local sharpener for a tune-up every five days.
The thick groupings of percebes may look the most appealing, tucked in tight and resembling a wall of prehistoric toenails, but those go mostly untouched by the sisters. When I excitedly point out to Isabel what I think is the discovery of a cache of juicy barnacles, she quickly curbs my enthusiasm. “Those won’t work. You can’t pull them off with the base intact, so as soon as you pick them, they begin to lose water and wrinkle. Good percebes last for a week; within a day, these’ll be dead.”
An hour into the excavation, the swells start picking up. A wave knocks one of the men onto his back before two partners pull him out of the tide. Another sweeps a man off his feet as he’s trying to jump from one rock to another. I can feel my heart suddenly beating in my throat as the imagined danger of a barnacle hunter suddenly becomes very real.
Susana looks at her watch: 10:46 a.m. Low tide today is 11:19, meaning we’re in the danger zone, the 30 minutes before the ocean bottoms out, when the swells are most savage. Suddenly I look around and see that we’re alone, the sisters and me, on what’s left of the vanishing island.
They talk rapidly among themselves in Gellego, shifting their eyes from the horizon to the coast behind us, where the others have fled for higher ground. The language with its Portuguese cadence, the pinched-cheek pronunciation that turns the hard edges of Spanish syllables into soft, rounded corners, belies the severity of the situation at hand.
Finally, Susana sees me and switches back to Spanish. “We need to get off this rock. Now.” Try as we might, we cannot tame the ocean. Over thousands of years of evolution, we’ve learned to subdue nearly every other part of nature: leveling forests, damming rivers, dynamiting mountains down to molehills. Converting patches of inhospitable desert sands into spectacular oases of sin. But no amount of determination or technology or accumulated understanding can weaken the ocean’s resolve.
The danger of the barnacle hunter is the knowledge that even the slightest edge—a learned intuition, a measured bravery, an extra bit of resistance in the legs—means a better life for you and yours. For them, the ocean is both an open invitation and a standing threat. Ask Susana about the most important skill in a percebeiro’s tool kit and she won’t hesitate: respect. Deny the ocean the respect it demands and it will drag it out of you, one way or another.
Just ask the plump octopus fisherman trembling on the rocks. As we vacate our vanishing island, swim back across the water in between swells, drag ourselves onto higher, dryer ground, he stands stubbornly on the edge of the rocks, his long bamboo stick probing beneath the water. One of the women warns him about the waves, but he tells her to leave him alone.
Twenty minutes later, after the González sisters drag his trembling body from the ocean and leave him in the hands of his panicked wife and a group of paramedics, they are back on the rocks, scraping up a living.
Only when they hit their quota do they relax. Isabel grabs a sea urchin, cracks it open, scoops out its soft orange innards and eats it with her fingers, seasoned with nothing but seawater. She passes one to Susana, another to me.
“People ask me if I ever think of finding a different profession,” says Isabel, picking through her bag of barnacles, doing rough calculations of what she might expect to fetch at the day’s auction. “Are you kidding me? You think I want to work at a desk? This is my office: the ocean, the coastline. I’m out in the open air, the wind in my face, my sisters by my side. What could be better than this?”