The other evening I saw a Donegal woman on TV demonstrate the slicing and cooking of squid for a TV chef who, upon tasting the results after they'd spent 30 seconds in a deep fat fryer, declared them the most delicious squid he'd ever eaten, including in Gallica, northern Spain, legendary home of fish cooking.
I was glad to see a demonstration of how fried squid need no longer taste like rubber bands. Like the TV chef, the affable Neven Maguire, I too have eaten squid overseas, indeed transglobally. Once, in the early 1960s, I even went on a night squid-fishing boat out of Ibiza town and manned the flame on the massive carbon kleig light that attracted the squid to the net. "Cuidado, Damián!" yelled the boatman, before I set fire to the boat.
I had every sympathy for the squid or calamari, as they are more romantically called. In life, their large eyes make them positively endearing, and their grace when swimming and changing colours make them yet another beauty of the sea.
Fish, I think readers will agree, are almost universally beautiful in motion — well, perhaps not angler fish with their huge heads and gaping mouths of serried teeth. Their tails are, of course, delicious, sold as monkfish. Growing up to 4ft long, with a gape wide enough to swallow a firkin, I would not like to meet one when snorkelling into a big wave and finding it coming at me!
While I cherish calamaris and all other sea creatures, fish markets with their glittering millions of dead always trouble me; how long can this harvesting by massive modern boats last?
I saw a giant blue-fin tuna head standing upright on a Cork city fish stall last week: it's owner weighed over half a ton. It looked so noble, its red steaks on the ice around it!
I must admit being very partial to fish on the plate. Can one call squid fish-flesh? Perhaps not, but when the chef spoke of the most delicious squid rings he'd ever eaten, I wanted to say that I recently ate a kalamari – Greek spelling – stuffed with feta cheese, that was a milestone meal of my life.
I'm no stranger to squids and squidlets, cuttlefish and octopi, but this kalamari outclassed all and every other mollusc I have ever eaten, of flavour and tenderness unrivalled.
It had, apparently, been grilled: whatever it was the cook did (hardly a chef: a Greek family restaurant) to it made it succulent and al dente (readers will know I'm not showing off: it's the only spot-on word, literally 'toothsome'). Succulence, readers will know, is rare indeed in creatures of the family Cephalopoda. Often, they're as tough as might be bicycle inner tubes cut into rings, doused in oily breadcrumbs and thrown into a fat fryer. Genuine bicycle tubes might taste better. I've never tried them.
I had some battered squid in a Cork eatery some days after my return from Greece and while not as chewy as rubber bands, neither was it tender; it could have done with more battering, this of a physical nature, perhaps.
I've seen octopuses being battered off rocks by fishwives – swung by their tentacles ( I hope they were dead) – to tenderise them; a kitchen mallet might be useful to cooks who haven't learned the art of squid cookery à la Grecque.
While we have plentiful squid available, especially in the Irish Sea, squid is not on traditional menus. Could they perhaps be a tougher race than their Mediterranean kinfolk? This is the case with octopi. The common or garden Irish octopus, with a single row of suckers on each tentacle is – as opposed to two in the Med and Canary Island species – luckily for it, all but inedible..
I've mentioned 'squidlets', creatures the size and shape of the human thumb battered and fried in Spanish restaurants as 'chipirones'. I'd hoped they weren't, in their millions, offspring of kalamari destined to grow to 24cm long and 6cm fat, like mine. In fact, they are, indeed, infants. What an ecological and spendthrift crime to harvest them before they are fully grown!
Crimes at sea
As reported in The Examiner last week, the haul of a Spanish boat unloading fish to be taken to Spain at Castletownbere in June this year was found to be carrying 3,000kg of blue skate, a critically endangered species. Their distinctive snouts and tails had been removed, making visual identification difficult. The inspector, Mr. Gary Hannon, had the DNA of 20 wings of the skate tested, proving their identity. The skipper, fined €20,000 and seeing his catch and gear, each worth €30,000, confiscated, will return empty to Spain. Perhaps, in future, he'll obey conservation laws and return blue skates to the sea.