Jellyfish Seek Italy’s Warming Seas. Can’t Beat ’Em? Eat ’Em.
The law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, also removes bureaucratic impediments faced by European proponents of homegrown so-called novel foods, including those who favor eating the Mediterranean jellyfish.
But the Italian Health Ministry said that since no member state had a tradition of eating jellyfish and since the local species appeared biologically distinct from their edible Asian cousins, with different toxicity levels and variations in stinging cells, all the standard European research and safety-control tests needed to remain in force before a Mediterranean jellyfish could ever appear as a wild-caught delicacy in markets or on menus.
It was for such research that Dr. Leone slipped on her diving fins.
“Look, it’s enormous,” she said as she spotted one species, a pulsating violet-rimmed Rhizostoma pulmo — a.k.a. barrel jellyfish — drifting like a submerged plastic bag.
She dived into the jellyfish-infested waters and returned with nets full of violet globules.
As a tortoise, moving like a shadow in the water, arrived for its favorite slippery snack, Dr. Piraino explained how the changing climate will force people to follow the lead of the turtle or, more specifically, the Italian fisherman who once told him he liked to fry jellyfish and hungered for jellyfish ragu.
On deck, Lorena Basso, another climate researcher who has a grant to study the sexual distribution of jellyfish, used a scalpel and scissors to separate the animal’s bell-shaped umbrella from its tentacles, which glistened in the sun like dripping, translucent cauliflower.
“What she is doing now is taking the gonads of the jellyfish,” Dr. Piraino explained before calling out to his wife. “Antonella. Get me the one with the colored gonads.”
Back on board, Dr. Leone patiently held a jellyfish above a jar, draining it of its stinging mucous, with gloved hands that seemed slimed by innumerous sneezes.
“Would you like to taste it?” Dr. Piraino asked.
Once at their headquarters in the baroque city of Lecce, Dr. Leone put on a lab coat and experimented with ways to conserve the jellyfish.
She prepared to freeze dry and vacuum pack them and asked a colleague to pull a species from the barrel. He put his hand in but came up empty.
“What are you,” she asked, “scared?”
The next morning, a restaurant near the university in Lecce became a test kitchen.
As the defrosting jellyfish seemed to reanimate under the faucet’s running water, the restaurant’s chef asked if he should salt the boiling water. Dr. Leone told him it would not be necessary. He asked how to cut the tentacles from the cap.
“Like a mushroom,” Dr. Piraino explained.
They boiled the first batch for a few minutes to remove its water and destroy its stinging cells. The chef, with a dubious, hesitant expression, sliced the boiled jellyfish, now cerebral in appearance with a deeper purple hue.
Another cook then slid the slices through a flour batter and dropped them in a fryer. Once plated, they broke free of their casing and insolently stuck out like purple tongues.
Dr. Piraino cut a piece that he said was full of protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
“It’s great,” he said, as it slipped out of his hand.
The chef marinated a piece in garlic and basil for the grill. He prepared another on a bed of arugula next to a sweet fig to balance out what everyone agreed was an intense saltiness.
At the end of the tasting, there were several untouched specimens on the table. Dr. Leone packed the foodstuff of the globally warmed future into a jellyfish doggy bag.
“It’s for my colleagues,” she said. “They are a little skeptical.”
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