Wednesday, 7 September 2011

O is for... Octopus vs. Victoria

Richard and I had such a delicious dish of octopus carpaccio in Rome last year, that we haven't stopped banging on about it since. I wanted to try to recreate that unforgettable dining experience for O night and started, reasonably enough, by sourcing an octopus for my pot, so I turned to our excellent local fishmonger's,  Fish Tale, for help and advice. I rang them up and asked if I could order an octopus for the weekend and the lovely man on the other end of the line replied in a thick Portuguese accent, "Of course! You cook octopus before?". I told him I hadn't, but I would very much appreciate his advice. And here it is:

"Well, traditional speakin', you supposed to bash 'im very hard against a rock for a very long time to make 'im nice and tender. So much faff it is this way, so don't worry. Stickin' 'im in the freezer does zactly the same job. You freeze 'im and once you defrost 'im, he'll be very nice and tender for you.  So, I do this for you, OK?"

"Yes please! Thank you, that sounds great! And how long should I cook the octopus for?"

"Well, my wife, she is a very good cook, and she say to put an onion in the pot with 'im and also lots of water. When the onion is cook, 'e is cook. OK?"

Great! That all sounds straightforward and easy enough. Just shove him in a pot with water and an onion and leave it until the onion's cooked through. No probs. Excellent.

I asked Richard to collect the octopus from Fish Tale on his way back from a meeting, which he did, but it wasn't quite what I'd been expecting. The octopus was in a large plastic box, about the size of a family sized tub of ice cream, all squashed with a beady eye looking at me, peering out through the cellophane lid. Richard told me what the man in Fish Tale had said, 

"I was going to kill 'im for you, but 'e 'asn't 'ad time to fully defrost yet. Very easy to do though, once 'e's finish defrosting, turn 'im inside out and chop 'is beak off and then run 'im under the tap. OK?"

"Hang on", I said, "hang on just one second. Does that mean... he's still alive?" Richard and I both turned our attention back to the half defrosted plastic tub of octopus sitting on the kitchen worktop. We looked suspiciously at the eye peering out through the icy, transparent and flimsy lid, then back at each other's worried scowls. "I don't know," said Richard, "surely freezing it would kill it? Wouldn't it?"

I quickly opened my laptop and pounded 'will freezing an octopus kill it?' into the keyboard. My search unnervingly raked up accounts of their unparalleled intelligence and problem-solving skills and also entries concerned with how octopuses kill humans:

"Most octopus have beaks that can pierce a person and if they bite one of your main arteries than you would bleed to death. Some octopus have venom in their beaks so you would get poisoned and possibly die. Also, their grip is tremendous so they could strangle and suffocate you. If you were scuba diving than an octopus could pull your breathing tube out so you would drown".

These reassuring images caused the already heightened paranoid dramatics in my head to snowball. The octopus in my kitchen was clearly going to defrost, break through the cellophane lid with its unusually strong eight arms before hurling itself at my throat. I had images of the octopus's eight-armed grip growing tighter and tighter around my neck, shaking me with enough force to lift my kicking feet off the kitchen floor. With my hands desperately clawing at its suckers in a last pathetic attempt to lessen its hold, I imagined the octopus losing patience and, in irritation, releasing one of its arms from my throat, so as to slap away my scratching fingers, before slapping me round hysterical face, like swatting a fly, before rejoining its seven comrades in choking the last gasping breath of life out of my oxygen-starved body. Next he would move on to Richard, then the neighbours, then the whole street. Was any of London safe from the psychopathic cephalopod in my kitchen?

My mind wandered back to a memory of my nephew's excited and expectant face as he showed me a video from the National Geographic website called Shark vs. Octopus. He laughed as he asked me, "which one do you think will win, Auntie Vic? I bet you can't guess!". I thought the shark could take it, of course I did. Who wouldn't? A shark's got massive bite-y teeth and the strength of ten Bravestarrs at least. And what's an octopus got? It's just a big rubbery pile of arms, for Christ's sake! It couldn't beat a shark, because, well, it's a bloody SHARK! Well, it turns out that octopuses are much niftier in the art of killing than most of us would expect. In Shark vs. Octopus, the octopus took it without breaking a sweat. Octopuses are clever. 

After much nervous laughter while prodding the half frozen box with a spatula to see if it moved, I realised there was only one option. Richard would have to go back to Fish Tale and ask the lovely, helpful man to wait for it to defrost so he could kill "him". So Richard did and then a few hours later we went back to collect "him" to put him in a pot with an onion. When the onion was done, he was done.

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