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Friday, March 20, 2009

How d'you eat Conch anyway?

..asks one of our friends. Therein, of course, lies a story or two.

Conch is the big water-snail of these tropical islands. You pronounce it 'conk' round here - the quickest way to identify yourself as a tourist is to talk about eating conch at Norman's Cay. It's conk at Norman's Key if you say it right. Anyway, if you are not eating it in a bar or restaurant, here's how to make a good conch salad.

First find your conch. They live in grassy sand, about ten to twenty feet deep. Get out your snorkel mask, ask around and head out in the dinghy to the recommended spot. Once you see some, dive over the side and go have a closer look. The shells must be large, when they are mature - over three years old - the shell gets a well formed lip at the edge, and it is only then that they are legal. For a good sized salad you'll need a two or three conch for four people. So grab the conch - they don't run away so it's pretty easy - and load up the dinghy.

Head back to the boat, peel off your wetsuit, grab a knife, hammer, tupperware box and head for the beach. Don't wear a shirt, you're going to get a bit messy. Use the hammer to smash a hole in the end of the conch, bits of shell and gloop will splat back at you. Cut the meat you see then reach in the wide end of the shell and pull the poor guy out of there by it's foot (Conch have a hard shell like foot they can use to move and to close off their opening, unless someone has bashed a hole in the other end etc etc)

You'll now be holding an unpleasant looking mess of mollusc. You have to cut off all the bits that aren't white meat (and there's plenty, I won't go through what they are) and get left with a lump of meat with a grey skin around it. That skin peels off eventually, after much swearing, slipping and tugging.

The resulting meat is rubbery and tough, you wonder why people bother. But marinate it, or pound it a bit, and it's pretty good. For the salad, simply chop the raw meat into small quarter inch cubes, marinate in lime juice for half an hour, and mix with chopped red onion, green pepper, fresh tomato and a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Very good.

You can also make 'crack conch' which is just the meat pounded, breaded and fried. Conch fritters are deep fried with tempura type batter, and there's various other options.

As with so much seafood, harvesting is a controversial business. Four or five for us every so often isn't an issue, or certainly shouldn't be, but commercial fishery sees local boats going to an area and clearing out pretty much every mature conch to be seen - fifteen hundred at a time isn't unusual. Frozen and canned conch is readily available, but I doubt that this is sustainable. A conch fisherman can break and clean a conch in about twenty seconds (it takes me five minutes for each one of the slimy slippery little devils) and we often see piles of freshly cleaned shells on islands we visit. I have seen some piles containing large numbers of undersized shells - it's illegal but it does happen so I have to wonder about the future of the fishery, if not the species.

Whilst there are still a few around, though, we enjoy the occasional salad from what we can catch but steer clear of buying anything commercially fished. We also get the benefit of the shells, which can be made into a conch horn. Seal up the hammer hole with epoxy, cut the narrow end off and file it flat, and you can play it like a trumpet. Issie went, with our friend Maik, to a little beach workshop in Georgetown to learn how to make them and we now have a good one on board. Max blows it to announce the sunset, to welcome and say farewell to friends' boats in the anchorage, and for any other reason he can think up. He's pretty good at it too.

So that's the story about conch. Probably not worth the effort, really....

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