The octopus men
[ places - october 03 ]
Here in the Canary Islands, the octopus men were far out on the exposed rocks, silhouetted against the sun-bright sea.
Holding our hands before our eyes, we looked at them through narrow slits between our fingers. A metre long rod of light reinforcing-iron in each hand, one bent at the tip, the other with a rag tied to it, they went about their business, patiently and methodically searching pool after pool. There is an art to catching octopus and knowledge born of experience. Over the years, the hunters get to know the pools, with their small overhangs or caverns in which the octopus live. When an occupant is caught and the lair is vacant, another soon moves in, thus ensuring a regular supply.
The rag is drawn through the water close to the mouth of the 'cave'. Inside, the octopus, thinking it to be a competitor or, simply, a passing meal, reaches out and grabs it. Now, the second iron rod is inserted behind the unfortunate creature and, with dexterity and skill, it is pulled out into the pool, grabbed by the hunter, and dispatched without ado.
I never see women engaged in octopus hunting. It is, anyway, a part time business. Most of the hunters are wiry, sun-browned old men who take their lives in their hands on the slippery rocks. Perhaps their skills were honed in an age of less affluence when an octopus was a welcome supplement to the family fare. Now, a sale to a restaurant supplements a pensioner's income.
These days, tenderising octopus is much easier than it used to be. The trick is not to beat it with a mallet but to leave it in the deep freeze for a few days or even a few weeks. It is then put in cold, unsalted water with onions and basil and slowly boiled. Hot or cold, it is best served 'al diente'. To achieve this, the boiling may take most of an hour but it should be tried with a fork after 30 minutes. If over-done, the meat loses some flavour and the skin becomes gelatinous, but this is not unpleasant and some prefer it so.
The Irish octopus is every bit as good as the Spanish or Canary Island creatures; they are the same species. In June 1993, I had a six-foot marine aquarium containing 110 gallons of salt water in my back kitchen. The proprietor of a local pub gave me an octopus which he had caught, unintentionally, on a rod and line. It was an enchanting creature with large, sympathetic eyes, black with a big yellow iris. It was mottled pink when I put it in the tank but quickly changed to red when it climbed into the terra-cotta flower pot I'd provided.
Later, when I went to commune with it, it was gone. I found it sitting on the dog's blanket, ten feet away from the tank; being molluscs minus a shell, octopuses can live quite a time out of water. The dog blanket was Black Watch tartan; so, now, also, was the octopus.
A member of the 'lesser' rather than the 'common' octopus species, it was a foot across. It ate prawns, which it stalked theatrically, catapulting itself like a jet-propelled handkerchief to envelope them. Children loved watching it but, at last, too busy to daily trawl the rock pools for live prawns, I let it go. Being a clever creature - octopuses have high IQs - it may have decided to continue to look to humans for a free lunch.
Colin Barnes, a fisherman-turned-whale-watcher of Castletownshend in West Cork, took me out in his boat when he was hauling 'shrimp' pots, as they are called in West Cork. Every fifth or six pot had an octopus within but no prawns, the captured prawns being, by then, within the octopus. As usual, he removed each one, and after demonstrating how they could change colour by sticking them on his first mate, Paddy's, yellow oilskin, or on the blue cabin door, he conscientiously threw them back into the sea.
Weeks later, he told me he had got fed up with octopuses dining on his potted shrimps, and had begun to suspect he was catching and releasing the same ones each time. To test this theory, he snipped a half inch off one tentacle of every 'pot' octopus he pulled aboard. Sure enough, the same octopuses, released in the same area, were climbing into the pots each time. No more free prawn dinners, decided Colin; he would seek Spanish buyers and, from then on, octopuses would become, themselves, the meal...