Seafood feast at Sausset les PinsThroughout the winter, in villages on the beautiful Blue Coast, thousands gather on the harbour-front on Sunday mornings to feast on fresh seafood. logoClick here to book a hotel in Provence

There is almost nothing people in Provence like better than a thumping good street party - unless it's a street party with something delicious to eat. And who cares if it's the middle of winter? Amazingly, the sun usually comes out to beam on the festivities.

The seafood feasts are traditionally held every weekend in Sausset les Pins during January and in Carry le Rouet throughout February, when fresh seafood is generally regarded to be at its peak.

Coach parties from all around the surrounding area are organised for these hugely popular events, which introduce a welcome note of cheer in the dreary months of the late winter.

Up to 6000 seafood fiends can converge on Carry or Sausset for one of these feasts. And now other towns, such as Istres, Fos sur Mer or Port Saint Louis in Toulon, are getting in on the act with their own seafood celebrations, generally in early March.

Seafood feast in Sausset les PinsIn the past these were known as oursinades and were centred on the sea urchin (oursin), which fishermen would sell fresh from the sea at knockdown prices.

Armed with a cardboard platter of these spiky little creatures and a plastic beaker of crisp white Côtes de Provence wine, visitors would make for one of the long wooden tables lined along the quay side or (if the wind is up) set inside a marquee.

When all the seats were taken, people would just squat down on an upturned boat, bollard, or anything that came to hand.

Typically, the whole idea started as a joke, explains Maryse Canepa, who organised these feasts at Carry le Rouet for many years and comes herself from a family of fishermen.

In 1952 - so the legend has it - the mayor of Cap Rousset, a man of imposing poundage named Jean-Bapiste Grimaldi, offered his own weight in sea-urchins to the local populace. The idea caught on. And since then the oursinades have become a victim of their own success.

The sea urchin is not a shellfish but an echinoderm (the name means spiny-skinned and the genus also includes starfish and sea cucumbers).

Around 800 different species exist worldwide, five or six of which can be found along the Blue Coast, although only one of them is edible.

It is strictly regulated. Boats are banned from trawling, as they damage the seaweed on which the urchins feed. Instead, scuba divers collect them by hand: just twenty or so divers in the Marseille and Martigues area hold a permit to do this commercially. Local enthusiasts are allowed to fish for them on a very limited scale - but poachers can expect to pay a heavy fine.

Oursinade, or sea urchin feast, at Sausset-les-PinsOnly adult urchins of a minimum five cm / two inch diameter (excluding the spines) may be culled, which means they are at least four years old. And fishing is only permitted between 1 November and 15 April. Locals claim that, the colder the temperature of the water, the tastier the catch.

Yet, despite all these precautions, the oursin is under threat, thanks to illegal fishing, over-fishing and pollution, explains Frédéric Bachet, the Director of the Blue Coast Marine Park at Carry Le Rouet.

Gourmets crave the tasty morsels, even in summer. You may see "Blue Coast sea urchins" offered at shellfish stalls and restaurants in the warm months - but they will be either mislabelled or fished illegally.

The oursin population has grown slightly in recent years, according to samples taken by the Marine Park. And there have been efforts to introduce new stock from outside the region, by importing young sea urchins from Brittany. But the numbers are still only half what they were at their peak.

If you want to eat sea urchins at these feasts, you may have to go to one of the restaurants and the urchins offered there may not be fished locally. However, you'll still be able to buy other seafood - oysters, mussels and prawns - from the fishing boats on the harbour front to picnic on.

A sea-urchinCar parking is always difficult, so go by rail: the towns are all served from Marseille by the Blue Coast (Côte Bleue) line, one of the most spectacular train trips in France. Festivities generally start mid-morning and there will be music and dancing and craft markets too.

But gourmets will still regret the absence of the sea urchin, pictured, which, historically, has always been the star of the show.

Enjoyed as a delicacy since Roman times, the taste has been described in ecstatic terms by Pierre Gagnaire, the top chef whose restaurants include the super-expensive Sketch in London and the three Michelin-starred Pierre Gagnaire in Paris.

"It is incredibly complex, at once bitter and sweet, radically sea-scented and slightly smoky, with notes of hazelnut, honey and even blood!" Gagnaire has enthused. "The texture is creamy and elusive. It's an extreme, almost sexual sensation."

If you're not in Provence in mid-winter, you can always try Chez Toinou in Marseille or Aix en Provence for some of the best seafood in the region, or Chez Roger on Marseille's Old Port.

But anyway much of the fun of the open-air seafood feasts comes from the easy-going, no-frills atmosphere and the novelty of picnicking in the middle of winter. Do check, however, that the event is going ahead on days of very bad weather: it can be cancelled, especially if there is a high wind.

Best of all, it's cheap. A popular French expression to describe someone tight-fisted with their money is, "He has sea urchins in his pockets" ("Il a des oursins dans les poches"). Well, you could go along to one of these feasts with a handbag full of hedgehogs and still have an excellent time.


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