Saturday, June 9, 2012

Biche-de-Mer


While reading Edgar Allan Poe’s rather remarkable short novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), I was struck by a bit of natural history involving a sea creature called “biche-de-mer.”

At this point in the narrative, Pym has become a crewman on a British sailing schooner called the Jane Guy, bound for the South Seas on a trading and sealing mission.

The captain decides to explore south of the Antarctic Circle, and they discover a strange island inhabited by a dark-skinned race. They decide to work with the islanders to harvest biche-de-mer from the shallow coastal waters, for eventual sale to the Chinese and others.

About six years before Poe’s novel appeared, American sea captain Benjamin Morrell had published an ostensibly account of his nautical adventures entitled Narrative of Four Voyages (1832) in which he talks about the biche-de-mer. Morrell describes the creature as “an edible sea-slug” much in demand by the Chinese:

"Some of them are as much as a foot and a half long. The Chinese eat them, and think them a great luxury" (p97)

Poe is said to have borrowed extensively from Morrell’s account, though changing things significantly to suit his purposes.

Here is some of what Arthur Gordon Pym says about the biche-de-mer:

This mollusca is oblong, and of different sizes, from three to eighteen inches in length; and I have seen a few that were not less than two feet long. They are nearly round, a little flattish on one side, which lies next the ground, or bottom of the sea; and they are from one inch to eight inches thick. They crawl up into shallow water at particular seasons of the year, probably for the purpose of gendering, as we often find them in pairs. It is when the sun has the most power upon the water, rendering it tepid, that they approach the shore; and often into places so shallow, that on the tide's receding they are left dry on the coral reef, exposed to the heat of the sun. But they do not bring forth their young in shallow water, as we never see any of their progeny; and the full-grown ones are always seen coming in from deep water.  They feed principally on that class of zoophytes which produce the coral. 
 The biche-de-mer is generally taken in three or four feet water; after which they are taken to the shore, where they are split at one end with a knife, the incision being one inch or more, according to the size of the mollusca. Through this opening the entrails are forced out by pressure, and they are much like those of any other small tenant of the deep. The article is then washed, and afterward boiled to a certain degree, which must not be too much nor too little. They are then buried in the ground for four hours; then boiled again for a short time, after which they are dried, either by the fire or the sun. Those cured by the sun are worth the most; but where one picul (133 1/3lb.) can be cured that way, I can cure thirty picul by the fire. When once properly cured, they can be kept, in a dry place, for two or three years, without any risk; but they should be examined once every few months, say four times a year, to see if any dampness is likely to affect them. A picul, according to the Chinese weight, is 133 1/3, lb. avoirdupois. 
 The Chinese, as before stated, consider biche-de-mer a very great luxury; believing that it wonderfully strengthens and nourishes the system, and renews the exhausted vigour of the immoderate voluptuary. The first quality commands a high price in Canton, being worth ninety dollars a picul….

The creature Pym is describing is of course the sea cucumber, which was often called the “sea slug” in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

As our friends at Wikipedia tell us:

Sea cucumbers are echinoderms from the class Holothuroidea. They are marine animals with a leathery skin and an elongated body containing a single, branched gonad. Sea cucumbers are found on the sea floor worldwide. The number of holothurian species worldwide is about 1250 with the greatest number being in the Asia Pacific region. Many of these are gathered for human consumption and some species are cultivated in aquaculture systems. The harvested product is variously referred to as trepang, bĂȘche-de-mer or balate. Sea cucumbers serve a useful purpose in the marine ecosystem as they help recycle nutrients, breaking down detritus and other organic matter after which bacteria can continue the degradation process….  
 In recent years, the sea cucumber industry in Alaska has increased due to increased export of the skins and muscles to China. 
 In China, sea cucumbers are farmed commercially in artificial ponds. These ponds can be as large as 1,000 acres (400 ha), and satisfy much of the local demand. Wild sea cucumbers are caught by divers and these wild Alaskan sea cucumbers have higher nutritional value and are larger than farmed Chinese sea cucumbers. Larger size and higher nutritional value has allowed the Alaskan fisheries to continue to compete for market share, despite the increase in local, Chinese sea cucumber farming.

Interestingly, a controversy has developed in Canada over a plan to begin sea cucumber farming in Baynes Sound, between Denman and Vancouver Islands on the Pacific coast. Baynes Sound is a popular recreation area, and local residents are worried that sea cucumber farming will lead to industrialization of the area.

Says one press account dated June 1:

A proposed underwater sea cucumber farm that will stretch for five kilometers along the shore of Baynes Sound has opponents raising the alarm and mobilizing to stop the application before it is approved, but they have only one month to do so…. 
 If tenure is granted, it means the applicants Dan Bowen and Eric Gant will be past the first and arguably biggest hurdle in gaining a license to seed and harvest the sea creatures, considered a delicacy in parts of Asia, for the next 10-30 years…. 
 Bowen said that the cultivation of sea cucumbers, which live in the permanently submerged subtidal zone, will not impact residents or recreational users. The animals grow below the surface, somewhere between two to 20 metres under water, and they are seeded and harvested by divers. During their first few months after seeding, divers, working from a 32-foot boat, will check on the sea cucumbers every couple of weeks. After that, they will return approximately once a month until the animals are harvested when they are two to three years old.

What do sea cucumbers taste like? One blogger reports:

Sea cucumber is like a ghost. It seems substantial but after a few bites it just disappears and gives very little in flavor and leaves even less in aftertaste. It’s as if you never ate anything, like el Bulli foam.

There you go.

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