Updated May 7
"Like kissing a mermaid," is how chef Andrew Zimmern describes eating sea urchin in the new documentary The Delicacy, a film seven years in the making from Jason Wise, the director behind the Somm trilogy.
The film, which follows the journey of sea urchin from ocean to plate, through the eyes of the daredevil divers who harvest the treasure and the audacious chefs who love it, is out May 7, on Somm TV, a streaming service Wise launched late last year. (You can rent it now!)
"I always wondered why no one has made a film about urchin," Wise told Unfiltered (we were lucky enough to get a sneak peek). "Now I know. Because it's dangerous, reckless and wild." The documentary unfurls into an informative and educational journey into the past and present, chronicling how urchin is harvested, prepared and eaten, and the role it plays in nature. "I like when multiple stories equal one story," said Wise, explaining that he first became immersed in the lives of several Santa Barbara–based urchin divers after moving to California from Ohio several years ago.
"They're fascinating people, and when you think about a 3-star Michelin restaurant, you're not thinking of the roughneck crew that supplies the chefs with some of their finest ingredients." One featured diver, veteran Jim Marshall, has witnessed the industry's evolution over nearly 50 years, and another, newcomer Stephanie Mutz, dives solo to deliver whole, live urchin to chefs throughout California, including Kyle Connaughton, the enterprising toque at Healdsburg, Calif.'s SingleThread Farms, who appears throughout the film. "People can imagine rod and reel fishing, but knowing how urchin goes from a spiky ball to a pretty orange delicacy, it's cool to focus on that rather than us as the end-user," Connaughton told Unfiltered.
Those looking for a food-porn flick lingering on shots of glistening uni delicately placed onto plates in slow-motion will find only a bit of that. Culinary authorities like TV personality Zimmern and Justin Cogley, executive chef at Aubergine in Carmel Calif., provide plenty of commentary.
"I wanted to make a nature documentary, but that is actually about food," said Wise. "I always seemed to find urchin prominently featured in regional cuisines. But commercially, it's not a world you're allowed into." Urchin fishing in California is often done in tiny boats, and stringent regulations prevent civilians from getting close to it.
Connaughton said he's had a love affair with urchin since his early days getting into food, particularly sushi. "People think of uni as a luxurious element, but I've never seen it that way. In Japan, where I spend a lot of time, it is a ubiquitous ingredient," he said.
Wise and company had initially planned to premiere the film at Sonoma's Aperture Cellars with a multi-course dinner and Q&A. That may yet happen, but in the meantime, Wise, Connaughton and Aperture's Jesse Katz are offering a Delicacy-themed seafood hot pot recipe-and-wines package, with two bottles of Aperture and "a variation of a recipe I did on Japanese-style clay pot cooking with miso, seafood and vegetables," said Connaughton. At-home chefs and sippers can purchase now, with some proceeds benefiting Sonoma Family Meal and Corazón Healdsburg; SingleThread and Connaughton have been ardent supporters already during the COVID-19 crisis.
Winemaker Katz selected a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc for the pairing. "Because of the barrel ferments and bâtonnage, there's more texture and body in these whites, which play well with food, and the acidity helps cut through the richness in the dish," he said.
Wise has done wine pairings with other original series on Somm TV but never included a recipe. "People are making bread for the first time in their life, why not try new things?" he laughed. "Worst case scenario, you have a lot of great wine to drink."
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