Octopus will divide your audience – it’s a ‘Marmite’ type of food: you either love it or hate it.
Some people might think we shouldn’t eat any animal blessed with the apparent ‘intelligence’ to predict the outcome of football World Cups, or something that reminds us of Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid – or anything that is endowed with suction cups – gross!
If the poor octopus has suffered a bad press, the scorn even extents to some people who have acquired its taste: Richard Olney describes how being an ‘octopus-eater’ is a defamatory remark in some parts of Italy and France. This is unfortunate; as Olney also says, ‘…the octopus is not unworthy of a serious and unprejudiced table’. As far as cephalopods go it’s as anatomically benign as a cuttlefish or a squid – both of which are similar in texture and taste, but somehow manage to score much lower on the ‘yucky-food’ scale.
However, octopus does come with one particularly stubborn prejudice – on occasions it can be tough. But don’t let this put you off, accommodating the suckered tentacles is as much about texture as taste. You need to keep chewing, (past the point of thinking you are eating a piece of salty rubber) and imagine the invigorating embrace of the seaside with its crashing waves and ionized ocean spray…
My earliest memory of octopus was watching a Greek fisherman bashing an octopus on the rocks in Corfu. The process seemed to go on indefinitely – any quaint enthusiasm for witnessing local traditions quickly waned as our sympathies fell to the sad mop of flesh. The ordeal made a lasting impression, as many years later the memory was recalled when I too set about trying to tenderise my own octopus for the cooking pot.
Most recipes suggest all manner of tenderising techniques, ranging from freezing before cooking, repeated plunges in boiling water, adding corks to cooking pot, hours of boiling and bashing the unfortunate creature with kitchen implements.
Italians prepare very toothsome octopodes and include them in their famous seafood salads. The French cook octopus in a slow braise to a melt-in-the-mouth consistency and the Japanese make soft yielding sushi from thick octopus legs. But the prize for the tender octopus goes to Spain. In Spain, restaurants will sell platefuls of soft and delicious baby octopus or cuttlefish (who we trust have ensured sustainable supplies of these delicacies). And in Galicia, Northern Spain, they have developed the ultimate example of eight-legged tenderness: polpo a la gallega, an octopus specialty served on a pinewood platter – the pimenton-saturated chunks of octopus are succulent and tender with a gloriously gelatinous texture and unctuous taste.
So I plead my case: give octopus a chance – it’s been tricked out of its watery home, bashed on the rocks, put in the freezer and cooked for several hours – surely we need to give the poor creature the respect it deserves. Cook it well, keep an open mind and you will discover how good octopus can be!
To assist you on your own journey of enlightenment, I’ve suggested three ways to cook octopus here – each is delicious. But start with the Spanish version.