A fisherman catches an octopus in Greece
My boyfriend Adrien and I went sailing for a week in the Aegean. His mission was to deploy the jennaker, a sail he had never used before; mine was to catch, kill and cook an octopus. On the afternoon of the first day we moored underneath a white washed chapel in a sandbarred bay on the island of Kithnos. I put on my snorkel, jumped into the sea and went looking for my prey.
Octopi live in orifi and change colour to camouflage themselves against the rocks. I peered into many stony crevices, wary of poking my fingers into spiny sea urchins, but I couldn’t see anything except fat slug sea cucumbers. “This is going to be harder than I thought,” I told Adrien, somewhat dejected.
We went ashore at Loutra, a perfect harbour that defines the “sleepy Greek fishing village.” Sun-hot somnolence that lingered through dusk, a couple of tavernas at the water’s edge, a gentle oily lap of shore and the tread of cats. Dinner: thick bready taramasalata, fried red mullet and octopus, thick armed, densly chewy in a red wine cephalopod gravy that I mopped with bread. “How do you cook an octopus?” I asked the proprietor.
“The little ones you can grill, the big ones you have to boil or they are too—” and he made a pulling tyre movement between hands and teeth. “First you smash it 40 times. It’s tradition.” He winked. “Not less than 40! Not 39!” “And how do you catch an octopus?” I asked.
“You take it by the hands,” he said simply, shrugging. “The octopus is afraid more than you.” Cooking in a yacht galley, sway and slosh, braced against the ticking timer of sea seasickness that begins to wind up nausea the minute you duck inside, is an excercise in simplicity and speed. Perfectly suited, I found, to Greek food. Knife, bowl, tomato and red onion hacked into chunks, brick of feta, throw on capers, salt and pepper, dried oregano, squirt of vinegar and cover in a giant wallowing slug of olive oil. Three minutes. The greatest salad in the world. Salt and sweet and sour. No niceties, no fine chopping, no whisking dressing.
From a quayside market I bought silver flashing sardines, so fresh it was a crime to cook them,…