In this September 2016 file photo, An urchin picker at ISF Trading on Hobson's Wharf in Portland scoops the edible roe out of one of Clint Richardson's urchin. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Urchin uni is a delicacy from the sea that might not be familiar to all Western palates. Maine uni season is just getting started, though, and local seafood connoisseurs will want to take advantage of having this freshly harvested treat.

Though uni is often identified as sea urchin roe or eggs, it actually refers to its fleshy gonads, which are the only edible part of the spiny critters. The uni is carefully hand-picked from the green urchins harvested off the coast of Maine, where they thrive in the cold waters and rocky seafloor.

Maine’s urchin harvesting season starts in September and runs through April, led mainly by divers who carefully pick mature urchins from the sea floor. Decades ago, the urchin fishery suffered from overfishing, but regulations brought it back from the brink.

“It’s a wild product, so we’re lucky to have them here in Maine,” said Rachel Lapp, online sales manager at Browne Trading Company in Portland. “There’s not that many places in the country [where] you can get it this good. Maine uni is a very colorful, very vibrant, bright yellow. The taste is creamy [and] buttery which is very unique for a perishable seafood product. It’s kind of out of this world.”

Joshua Edgcombe, cofounder and marketing director of SoPo Seafood in South Portland, said that much of the uni harvested in Maine used to be exported to Japan for the sushi markets, but that started to change as Maine’s local food movement started growing around two decades ago.

“Now you say you have uni, people locally are interested,” Edgcombe said.

Once the urchins are harvested, the uni is processed locally — which is ideal, because the product perishes quickly and is best served as fresh as possible.

“The day it’s processed, we have it for sale,” Edgcombe said. “We constantly have very local access. It’s super important that that stuff’s fresh. That’s an advantage of being in Maine is you’re right on top of all that seafood.”

It is possible to ship uni, though. Lapp said that uni is Browne Trading Company’s best-selling product, and they ship the product all across the country.

“People absolutely adore it,” Lapp said. “We have people checking the site all throughout August. It’s one of those things that if you like it, you love it. It goes down very easily. It’s very addictive.”

Uni will cost you, though. Lapp said that Browne Trading Company sells two 4-ounce trays of uni for $72. A 4.6-ounce tray at SoPo Seafood is $28. For uni aficionados, though, the price tag is worth it — especially when the uni is fresh.

Not all seafood sellers in Maine stock uni because it is such a specialty product, but SoPo Seafood and Browne Trading Company both do. Once first-time buyers find a supplier, Lapp said they should always check the date on the uni, and make sure the consistency can “stand on its own” and doesn’t look “melted.”

“It spoils so easily,” Lapp said. “Even if it’s tightly packed, it happens to spoil a lot faster than any other seafood that we have.”

After you have purchased your uni, Lapp said to store the uni in the coolest part of your refrigerator and use it as soon as possible.

Clockwise from left: Maine urchin roe; uni spoons; uni bowl. Credit: Courtesy of Joshua Edgcombe

Uni can be served in a variety of ways — over rice in a bowl, in an “uni spoon” with other delicacies like caviar and quail egg, folded into pasta sauce or mixed into butter and spread on crostini, just to name a few.

If it’s your first time trying Maine uni, though, Lapp recommended having it plain is the best way to fully appreciate its unique flavor. Then, feel free to experiment — the world is your urchin.