It’s time to embrace a Galician classic
This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
“Octopus,” she said.
I had made the mistake of accompanying my invitation to dinner with a question now regarded as inescapable in the US, where I live: “Is there anything you don’t eat?”
If the Queen calls, I shall not lace her portion with garlic
Usually this elicits evidence of hypochondria, eco-idiocy, ideological vegetarianism, or religiously inspired irrationality. We live in the age of allergies, lactose-intolerance, digestive over-sensitivity and egocentric fussiness. I expect never again to serve anything that contains peanuts, offal or inseparable elements from the dairy.
I defer uncomplainingly to guests who avow taboos about forbidden foods or claim moral authority for their preferences. I once served a man who objected to beef on the grounds of ill calculated methane content in bovine eructations. The same guest repudiated all fish: hunted species were inviolate; those farmed were anathema.
Professional or patriotic requirements ban some menu items. If the Queen calls, I shall not lace her portion with garlic. I serve no Greek wine to Turks, nor venison to animal rights lobbyists. If gossip columnists are present, there will be no tobacco-infused ice cream for politicians with vulnerable majorities.
Squeamishness is pardonable in moderation, and every host anticipates it by excluding, for instance, such delicacies as fried spiders, sheep’s eyes, slimy baby eels and fricassée of squirrel.
The octopus-exemption, however, surprised me. Of course, cephalopods are, by humans’ limited standards, monstrous. Jules Verne’s “devilfish” was a giant squid with “enormous, staring eyes that were tinted sea green” and “arms (or more accurately, feet) … rooted in its head”. H.G. Wells modelled Martians on similar creatures with “Gorgon groups of tentacles”. According to Moby Dick, “few whale-ships ever beheld the great live squid and returned to their ports to tell of it.”
Yet fish generally supply patterns of ugliness without impeding our appetites: monkfish are among those least loved for their looks and most loved for their flesh. Crabs and lobsters are seeming deformities. With bulging eyes, exposed joints and threatening claws, they are notorious for feeding on human corpses — none of which stops us from returning the compliment.
I wondered whether a sexual hang-up or frisson might be responsible for my invitee’s octopus-aversion: Hokusai launched the Japanese genre known as tentacle-erotica when he painted a gigantic cephalopod feeding on the pudenda of an ecstatically transported shell-diver. There is something about a tentacle — sinuous and sucker-studded — that evokes incubus and succubus all at once.
I decided, however, that my guest’s problem with the dish more probably lay in bad experience of inexpert cooking. Octopus must be perfectly prepared to avoid resemblance to old pencil-erasers. The first stage is tenderisation. I recall seeing fishwives on the coast of Galicia in my youth, pounding the tentacles on rocks. Readers without rocks to hand can rely on freezing to emulate the effect.
I generally abhor frozen food, but octopus is an exception: the process is improving. A cook in need of emotional release can always give the beast an extra pummelling without doing it any further harm.
Hot, it’s abominable, and cold, unpalatable
Small examples — under two kilos — are easiest to cook, after slow defrosting. A big pan of water must be unseasoned and allowed to boil fiercely before the creature is immersed. In my homeland, it is traditional to dunk your octopus three times before plunging it into the pan.
Whether the custom is magical or Pythagorean or Orphic — or pious, in a land as devoted to the Trinity as northwest Spain — is unrecorded. In any case, I suspect, the triple drowning makes no difference and can be omitted without prejudice to the outcome.
When the water has returned to the boil, it must be kept just-bubbling while the octopus cooks for about fifteen or twenty minutes per kilo. Experts pinch the broadest part of the tentacles to check the cuisson: it should yield softly to a brisk prod. While the flesh rests, before scissoring into thin tranches of tentacle and bite-sized lumps of head-meat, let hearty slices of potato boil fiercely in the liquor.
Parboiling the potatoes in advance is advisable, as octopus is best served warm for the desired feeling of comfort and succulence: hot, it’s abominable, and cold, unpalatable. Tradition favours waxy varieties of potato, but I think a floury-textured garnish suits the smooth, soft chewiness of the main attraction.
Liberal splashes of olive oil, with scatterings of coarse salt and smoky paprika, complete the dish. Delicate, pink rims show off the pure white of the discs; the olive oil and paprika gild and dust it with Spanish national colours.
“Octopus?” my guest echoed, reproachfully. “Try it,” I said.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe