Tuesday, 30 June 2009

On conquering an eight-legged monster

Octopuses are generally sold dead, but you feel you struggle a powerful, living sea-creature when immersing its foot-long muscular body into a saucepan of boiling water. The way it curls, spasms and turns from milky-grey to crimson makes you feel both powerful and cruel; in awe of the nature, how it allowed you to evolve and develop skills to conquer such animal.

We spent blissful two days on the island of Vis, Croatia, totally occupied by this many-legged creature. The octopus adventure started with an early morning trip to a little local fish market - a quiet covered space right on the sea front, with a handful of fishermen carefully laying out their catch on the smooth, stone tables. Feeling just a tad self-conscious (predatory white shorts and large sun-glasses) I breathed in and walked in...The men weren't particularly bothered either way, probably not quite believing that a young laaaady like me (remember, Vis is a 'luxury' island, full of yachts and London priced restaurants) would actually dare to buy a whole fish and cook it in her rented apartments. Well, I went for the weirdest and most daring (and, yes, the most dear! although peanuts compared to the prices in near-by taverns). I didn't even see its size when buying - the wrinkley paunchy fisherman just pointed towards a blue plastic bag and grumbled 'this, octopus!'. I accepted the unspoken challenge, internally steadily telling myself that if it all goes pear-shaped, it's only about 15 quid down the drain. The man must have spotted an octupi novice in me and offered to clean the mollusc (for a fee). Thank God I said yes, because, firstly, I realised I'd bought two octopuses; and secondly, that the amount of ink that came out of the creatures would swamp our entire 'euro-furbished' kitchen! I left the cool market room feeling adventurous, if slightly terrified.

My next move was therefore wise - checking how to cook the inky, slimy thing (I wouldn't normally go into such preparations, relying on my general sense of cooking requirements). Unlike a tender little squid, octopuses need to be cooked for good (aa!) 2 hours before being fried or grilled (apparently, octopuses live for a lot longer than the squid for example, hence having time to toughen up. They die, by the way, within just a few weeks of conceiving their off-spring: endocrine secretions are the cause of genetically-programmed death). So, our dinner had to be improvised whilst we got to the task of 'tenderising' the octopus’s meat. We spent the whole evening in the sweet vapour of the cooking octopuses. The oven was electric, and so I just couldn't find the way to keep the temperature constantly low, so the monster just lied there, bathing in a pot of very hot water. Eventually, around midnight, we made a decision that the folk could 'easily go through the fresh', poured out the water and let the two leggies rest.

I dreamt all night of legs, suction cups, corals...

The morning felt like a Christmas day to me. I jumped out of bed, sprinting to the kitchen, as if expecting that something magical would have happened to the cooked molluscs! They just lied there sleepily, very tender pale pink colour all over with darker, almost indigo-coloured thin layer of skin on top. They looked beautiful and humble to me.

Our second octopus day started with a delicate operation of taking some of the darker skin off the octopuses together with various fatty tissues in between, carefully trying to keep all the succulent suction cups intact. I then sliced all the 16 legs in one inch pieces: half was kept for our grandiose lunch, another half was marinated with just some olive oil and lots of lemon (this was mainly from the smaller octopus, who we, quite rightly, expected to be tender). The main feast was prepared like this:

Octopus a la Vis

glugs of (Croatian of course) olive oil

sliced onion

crushed garlic

all the sliced octopus legs

cubes of boiled new potatoes (4-6 depending on their size)

juice of one squeezed lemon (and some rind if you like a bit of extra zing)

a few table spoons of white wine

lots of finely cut parsley

(chilly flakes would go very nicely here, but I didn't have them in my rented kitchen)

Sweat onions and garlic in some olive oil, until tender and just a little brown. Add the octopus and potatoes, fry on a gentle heat for a 2-3 minutes, add the wine, let it evaporate for a minute or so. Chuck all the parsley, and stew for a few more minutes with a little bit of water if necessary, so that the whole thing comes together in a glorious and messy pink-yellow-green stew.

Eat with more chilled, crisp white wine and chunks of fresh and crusty baguettes.

Our verdict? The sweet and slightly citrusy flavour of the octopuses is unforgettable: fresh, meaty and juicy; it felt like sucking and chewing on the essence of the Mediterranean. If only I’d insisted that the stove the previous evening did it job properly – the bigger mollusc definitively needed an extra half an hour in the pot, as we needed at least a couple more jaws to chew through all the legs (a surprisingly pleasant meaty chewing gum of the octopus I fact!). I know this because the smaller legged creature had just the right texture of chewiness and melt-in-your-mouth tenderness… Perhaps the octopuses did have its upper hand (leg?) on us at the end. We were equals in the fight. I take my hat off in respect and… sharpen my knifes in preparation.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

On communist idiology and erotic fruits

I have come to a conclusion that one of the main criterion (let’s be honest, THE main criterion) in choosing my future place of residence ought to be its proximity to a good farmers’ market. And by ‘good’ I don’t mean a bijou type of a market, with a handful of artfully set up stalls of organic burgers and couscous with sun-dried tomatoes. I am after gluttony of shackled tables, all offering the same, all offering something different...

I have come back from a week in Croatia, you see. I am a new person, with a renewed belief that a (post) communist space, sea and sun can work together, even if the first few days you are in a haze of (seemingly) incompatible sensations - clean and luxurious sea, rude and haughty service, lightly (as opposed to Northern European 'cook to death' method) fish and vegetables, uninterrupted kind sun and a rumble of Slav sounds all around. I felt on the edge at first, not being able to put my finger on my feelings and the surroundings - a sense of displacement, disbelief and even envy that the hoards of Slavs managed to settle in this Adriatic paradise some many centuries ago - well done, bro! My predecessors in the not-so-far-away Ukraine chose steppes and sub-zero winters. The territory of Croatia was part of the Roman empire, and invaded by everyone from Turks to Venetians - the Italian influence is particularly strong here, with many local Serbo-Croatian dialects (a language so close to Russian that I could almost read newspapers) sounding positively Italianised - ciaos, sing-song rhythms and energetic gestures added to my overall Slav-Latin confusion. But it's Croatian markets (surprise-surprise) that made me feel if not at home then definitely homey.

The nearly orgasmic feeling of being able to just pop around a corner and have a selection of 10, 15, 30 little stalls all offering the same basic, beautiful, fully ripen products; all differently priced depending on their size and purpose (eat now or can for later); all having their customer and making a small but a buck. I aimlessly dreamed of organising guided tours here for the English farmers and producers, to show how selling the same product can still work in one market...

Unfortunately, we know well that the underlying structures of the markets in Britain are too different for us, on the Island, to even dream of having a market culture (things are changing, but the result is still uncertain). The Continent (and in my view ex-Communist countries in particular) still have masses of people with their allotments, growing a little bit of this and that, some for their own bellies, some to earn an extra coin. In Croatia it is a combination of a fertile land, mild climate and many years of Soviet food shortages that result in proliferation of markets. In the olden days growing your own was almost a necessity, even for the city dwellers. My own theory is that for many people under the Communist rule of no private property having an allotment meant having space for that Cosmo-induced 'me' time, freedom to have different conversations with your friends, creating something of your own, for yourself, getting away from the concrete reality of party-enforced limits. Perhaps it was all a lot more relaxed in Yugoslavia (I still remember my parents dreaming of a Czech 'garniture' - Yugoslavian furniture was highly desired for the unknown to me reasons), but things are clearly different here now. Even in food-phrensied countries like Italy and France markets are more professional than here it seems... But I'm transgressing away, here are the highlights of what you should try:

Figs - the freshness, light perfume and obvious eroticism of this large and squishy, lime-coloured fruit with its pale purple inside is unbeatable consumed with lashings of (local, lavender)honey and morsels of very mild (local, goat) cheese or just devoured as it is, lying Emperor-style by the sea, gazing leisurely at the surrounding female bodies.

Cherries - tiny, intensely sweet and sour jewels, the colour of a gypsy girl's eyes (and why not??), are surprisingly refreshing in the heat, especially when chilled and swallowed first thing in the morning after a thirst-inducing night. I kept dreaming of having them with peeps and all sunken in an almost-frozen vanilla ice-cream (note, NOT of local variety - overly-creamy and sugary - but hard and Italian, to sunk your teeth into).

ProŇ°ek - sweet dessert wine made out of dried grapes, syrupy in texture and blood-coloured. Highly recommend the kind produced in the isle of Vis (the island was closed to public until 1990's being a military post and the main hideout of Tito). Drink it cold after the abundant dinner of fish and molluscs; it gives energy and sweet dreams.

And of course, THE fish, on which just a bit later...