Neither flesh nor born of flesh

Going out for an evening of tapas is a typical activity here in Valencia, but not one we’ve done often. We’ve had some unsettling experiences with mystery croquetas during our few excursions, so we clearly could benefit from being better informed.

I’ve been meaning to walk down to a nearby restaurant that has a list of their offerings on a panel outside. Armed with said list, I could do some research. It’s a one-minute walk to the restaurant, but the other night before I could even start toward the door El Guapo had made it half-way down a list of typical tapas dishes from Wikipedia. One thing led to another, as it so often does with internet research, and rather than figuring out what tasty tapas we might order sometime, he began reading to me about goose barnacles.

And just what, exactly, are goose barnacles? I’m glad you asked.


goose barnacles

Goose barnacles


Goose barnacles are filter-feeding crustaceans that attach themselves to rocks, driftwood, and other hard surfaces on exposed oceanic coasts. Fine, as far as that goes, but I wasn’t really hooked until we got past goose barnacles and on to the barnacle goose.

Apparently, the name barnacle goose (species Branta leucopsis) can be traced back to the 12th-century idea that the barnacle goose and the goose barnacle were two phases of the same creature. Gerald of Wales, a Cambro-Norman archdeacon and historian, described the creature thus:

“They are like marsh geese but somewhat smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were a seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derived their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small bodies of birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells, and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth.” [Wikipedia]


Woodcut of barnacle geese emerging from goose barnacles, from the 1552 Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster


I’m not sure at what point in history migratory patterns of birds became widely known (we can add this to the list of things whose timing I’m unsure about), but it was at least later than the 12th century. Since no one saw these geese around during the summer (they were off breeding and nesting in the Arctic), people intent on authoring treatises on the topic had to come up with alternative theories for the birds’ life cycle.

Having around a lot of tasty birds that sprang from the sea was very appealing to medieval church leaders who were forbidden to eat flesh on days of abstinence, of which there were many (depending on what sources you consult, at least two days each week, plus various others). If these geese weren’t actually birds, Friday dinner could be much more interesting.



Some writers frowned on what seemed like a loophole. Here’s one criticism, with some interesting logic:

“Bishops and religious men (viri religiosi) in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh… But in so doing they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat of the leg of our first parent (Adam) although he was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating meat.” [Wikipedia]

It seems like there are more things wrong with the last scenario than it being an infraction of abstinence regulations, but I think we’ll move on. Suffice it to say that eventually it was understood that barnacle geese do not hatch from barnacles, and that if you’re a Fish-on-Fridays person, they can’t help you out.

I think I’m unlikely to be dining on barnacle goose anytime soon, but goose barnacles do feature on tapas menus. I’m undecided about whether they look like my next adventure. Anyone have a favorite goose barnacle recipe to share?


The tapas place around the corner

[Images: Wikipedia (including images by Tom Page and Andreas Trepte), yours truly]


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