Octopus

Tom Schierlitz

Armed and Delicious

The four-pound octopus at my feet has turned a ruddy reddish-brown, a clear sign that it is feeling threatened and mad as hell. It’s making its way around the deck of Perepau Gras’s boat, moving in an odd kind of dignified, stalking slither. One of its eight arms is extended, feeling around this completely new world like a blind person with a cane, processing information as it explores, searching for a way back to the sea or a place to hide. Suction discs line the rubbery arms, which some people mistakenly call tentacles (a jellyfish has tentacles, an octopus arms). The head, with a pair of protuberant eyes, is a small bulb in the middle of the membrane that connects those arms. A gelatinous sac, trailing behind the head, holds the entrails.

The octopus has a justly deserved reputation among zookeepers and researchers as a skillful escape artist—it can squeeze that bizarre body mass into and out of seemingly impossible spaces. Octopuses do consistently well at running mazes, are able to memorize a route between points, and can quickly analyze and respond to new situations. None of that will help this angry specimen in front of me. Gras, a short, stocky 39-year-old Catalonian, has been fishing octopuses out of this patch of the Mediterranean for 25 years and his boat is escape proof. At his leisure, Gras will recover the octopuses he has kindly tossed on the deck for me to observe and add them to the contents of a long netted bag suspended from a pole in the stern. When he brings them into Sant Carles de la Ràpita, on the Catalonian coast 100 miles south of Barcelona, he will get a few euros per kilo from local restaurants. A global market does exist, but the greatest demand is for those caught in the Atlantic Ocean.

The octopus is such a domestic creature that Mediterranean fishermen such as Gras do not need bait—they simply drop a line of empty clay cylinders to rest on the sandy bottom, each an attractive home to an octopus. Once curled up inside the cephalopod will refuse to leave, even when the tube is winched up to a boat above. Each time a trap holding an octopus comes across the taffrail, Gras dislodges the animal by squirting a few drops of an ammonia-and-dish detergent mixture into the tube, and out it slides onto the deck.

I reach down for the octopus flowing past my feet and attempt to pull it up by an arm. It’s slimy to the touch, so slippery that it is virtually impossible to grip, and the arm slides right through my hand. The mollusk has no problem hanging on to me, however, and lays the sucker discs of one arm on the back of my groping hand. After a second the arm moves on, the body trailing behind it, faint love marks left on my skin. The slime on my hand smells of the sea, but not fishy.

Gras, on the other hand, has no trouble with the octopus. Wearing rubber gloves, he grabs it with his left hand and plunges a short, sharp wooden-handled knife into a spot beneath the head where the arms join. The creature goes limp. "I’m going to give you this and a recipe," he tells me, much to my astonished dismay, as he cuts out and tosses overboard the beak, turns the entrails sac inside out, and washes off the ink.

The octopus is dead and cleaned before I can think of how to gracefully decline the offer. While I’ve enjoyed eating various forms of octopus for many years, I have never considered trying to cook one myself and have no desire to begin now. He slips it into a plastic bag as if it were a head of longleaf lettuce. There’s nothing to do but take it, as he gives me a short recipe for octopus stewed in beer, which he guarantees is delicious. The first step, he tells me, is to put it in the freezer when I get home and keep it there for at least a week. No problem, I assure him, thinking I’ll leave the thing there until I forget about it entirely.

With eight strong arms lined with powerful suckers and a beak capable of crushing a clamshell, the octopus ap-pears to be a formidable, aggressive foe. In reality it’s hard to imagine a more retiring, languid, stay-at-home species. When the Beatles sang about an octopus’s garden, they were right on the mark. Octopuses like to find an inviting lair, scatter some rocks and clamshells around it, and curl up inside, only emerging in the evening in search of food.

Octopus vulgaris, the common octopus, is a mollusk and a member of a class of animals called cephalopods, which also includes squid and cuttlefish. The sole cephalopod that makes itself a home is the octopus. In addition to its domestic habits, something else separates the octopus from other mollusks—its intelligence. It is capable of learning and memorizing on a remarkably sophisticated scale, and while research is relatively scant many scientists believe that an octopus is as smart as, say, a mouse. That it should be endowed with such mental prowess is particularly surprising considering that the animal is not likely to live more than three years.

For instance, it has been proven repeatedly that an octopus can learn to open a jar of food by draping its body over the top and twisting itself until the lid unscrews. The first time, it takes a while for the octopus to figure this out. Confronted with the same situation a week later, it opens the jar with no hesitation. Other mollusks could never in their lifetime work out a method for getting at a crab in a closed container. Something more is at work here than a standard marine intelligence. Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Philippe Diolé wrote in their book Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence that a diver immediately feels something unusually responsive in the gaze of an octopus: "One has the sensation of lucidity, of a look much more expressive than that of any fish, or even any marine mammal."

For all the intelligence in its gaze, what many people see when they look at an octopus is supper. Octopus is prepared for the table in many ways around the world, but one basic culinary rule applies nearly everywhere: It is not suitable for human consumption until tenderized. I saw my first fresh-from-the-sea octopus in 1968; it was being beaten against a bit of rocky shore on the Greek island of Ios by a stocky woman in a black dress with her sleeves rolled up. She was swinging it through the air and down against the rocks at the edge of the Aegean Sea, again and again, just as millennia of women had done before her, all the way back to ancient Greece, where Aristotle wrote his description of an octopus more than 2,000 years ago.

"What I do in this tub is the equivalent of beating an octopus on the rocks," Vincent Cutrone says as we stand in the rear of his Brooklyn seafood market, Octopus Garden, looking at his tenderizing machine. It is essentially a stainless-steel tub with two paddles mounted inside, which are driven by a motor. Salt, ice, and water are added, sloshing back and forth, as the paddles thump the octopus. The first mechanical tenderizing devices were converted washing machines (top-loaded octopuses!), but the salt water corroded their parts—thus the stainless steel.

"We defrost the octopuses, clean them, and put them in the machine," Cutrone tells me. "We cover them with water and add salt and ice. You can regulate the wave size of the water in there. Roughly a half hour later we change the water, and we’ll continue doing that until the new water stays clear and the octopus curls up beautifully."

Fortunately for the home cook, freezing has no effect on the flavor of an octopus and actually helps to tenderize it. In fact, simply freezing it for a week or more, defrosting it, and cooking it the proper length of time will produce an octopus that is eminently edible, less tough than a good steak. However, Cutrone is convinced that the extra tenderizing he does is one of the main reasons he is New York’s most highly regarded octopus wholesaler at a time when the animal has become increasingly popular among the city’s chefs. He estimates that in 2006 he sold roughly 300,000 pounds of it.

Cutrone is a short, trim, energetic man whose workday begins at 5 a.m., tenderizing the morning’s octopuses, then loading them on delivery trucks. That night they will grace the plates of diners in some of Manhattan’s finest restaurants. "Octopus sales have just exploded," he says. "I have customers as far away as Atlanta, Florida, Bermuda, and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. All this has happened by word of mouth. And in New York it’s unbelievable how many places want octopus now."

Wholesale is only part of Cutrone’s business. The front of Octopus Garden is occupied by a butcher’s white enamel display case with octopuses of four sizes: babies of a few ounces; seven-ounce youngsters; one- to two-pound lightweights, one of which fits nicely on a dinner plate; and big three-plus-pounders. They are all presented on a bed of ice with the arms curled elegantly under their bodies. A steady flow of customers comes through the door, and most of the business is conducted in Italian. Cutrone arrived in the States when he was 14, in 1974. He came from Bari, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, and the way he ate octopus there is the same way his patrons eat it here in Brooklyn’s Gravesend neighborhood.

Every Fourth of July Cutrone sets up in a nearby park and grills octopus for his neighbors. "They line up for it," he says. "I make my grill very hot. I take out the guts and the beak, and I open up the octopus and put it down on the grill pretty flat. When it changes color and I see that it’s done, I put it in a good olive oil and lemon juice mixture. Delicious. You can even make sandwiches with them."

Many of Cutrone’s Italian American neighbors view octopus as a comfort food and eat it regularly, but for most other North Americans it’s as exotic and unthinkable a meal as scorpions or snakes. That anyone would pay good money to eat octopus is inexplicable to those who have never tasted it.

The fact that many perceive the octopus as repulsive is one of the qualities that endears it to Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert, who won the James Beard award for Outstanding Chef in 2003. His menu offers octopus as a prelude to the main course. "I always like to have raw or marinated fish to begin with," he says, "and then a dish that is sometimes a bit adventurous for the client, before they have something more substantial."

One of Cutrone’s six- to eight-ounce cephalopods, wound up intricately on a plate in all its octopus glory, works just right in the adventurous category, Ripert says. "I want to serve it as what it is. To see the entire animal like that is slightly freaky but at the same time a delight. It looks beautiful on the plate," says the tall, handsome chef, his graying blond hair brushed back. "We’re not going to slice it and hide its nature," Ripert continues. "We’re saying, Look, it’s right here."

Le Bernardin’s menu describes the dish as "braised baby octopus, black trumpet mushroom-and-truffle purée in an herbes de Provence-infused red wine ink sauce." Ripert figures that he serves 40 a day. It is prepared by braising the octopus for an hour in a broth of squid ink, red wine, chorizo, Provençal herbs, shallots, chicken stock, tomato paste, piment d’Espelette, and lots of garlic. The result, served on the purée, is remarkably tender and flavorful, with the chorizo providing a back taste to the octopus.

New York’s chefs are latecomers to the pleasures and possibilities of this animal. The real octopus people are the Japanese, who predominantly eat it as sushi. Octopus is caught in the Sea of Japan but not in sufficient quantities to satisfy the market, so in 2005 the country imported more than 12 million pounds from around the globe. In addition to this steady demand, sales in the West are rising. Its current popularity in both European and North American kitchens of chefs such as Ripert has provided an economic boost to the octopus- fishing industry off the coast of southern Morocco, in the Atlantic. The town of Dakhla, on the coast of Western Sahara, is an octopus boomtown, home to nearly 80 recently constructed octopus-freezing plants, and Japanese companies have quality control representatives standing on the assembly lines eyeing the incoming stock. Hundreds of fishermen go out each day in small boats and their catch keeps the factories humming. Plus, large numbers of octopuses are fished by the factory ships that work farther offshore, in deep waters, with baited traps. These have freezing facilities aboard and can remain at sea for weeks at a time.

Vincent Cutrone has tried octopus from everywhere—the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean—but the bulk of his stock is from the Atlantic, which he buys in shipping-container loads from a company in the Canary Islands. That company, in turn, purchases from places like the freezing plants of Dakhla and the fleets of factory ships. Octopuses from the Mediterranean are the same species as those from the Atlantic, Octopus vulgaris. However, many octopus experts believe that the cooler waters of the Atlantic make the flesh firmer and more flavorful. In Spain, where most people eat octopus as pulpo a la gallega—octopus Galician-style—many insist that their raw material come from the Atlantic.

Barcelona’s Bar Celta Pulpería, for instance, serves up to 15,000 pounds of pulpo a la gallega a year, and it all comes from that ocean. "The important thing is not whether it comes from the waters off Galicia or Portugal or Morocco or Mauritania. What matters is that it’s from the Atlantic and not the Mediterranean," says the aptly named Luis Gallego, who has run Pulpería’s kitchen for 17 years.

The colorful bar is on a shadowy medieval side street, close to the port, and offers dozens of tapas. The star is pulpo a la gallega, one of the tastiest under-$15 bargains in the city. It is an extremely simple dish to prepare, but served with some crusty bread it is delicious. "Once we defrost the octopus and make sure it’s clean, we put it in boiling water and leave it in there for thirty minutes," Gallego explains. "Then we cut the octopus and serve it on a wooden plate, topped with paprika, high-quality olive oil, and a good table salt. That’s it. It doesn’t get any better."

I had more trouble forgetting the octopus in my freezer than I had anticipated. At odd moments the image of the plastic bag full of rock-hard cephalopod tucked between the ice cream and packages of frozen vegetables entered my mind. So one Saturday I defrosted it and set about preparing Perepau Gras’s recipe for octopus stew. First I sautéed onions, garlic, and grated tomatoes in olive oil. I added most of a can of beer and let it boil. Then I put in the arms of the defrosted creature, cut into inch-long pieces, brought the stew to a boil again, and let the mixture simmer for 15 minutes. Finally, I tossed in three potatoes cut into quarters and left it to simmer another 15 minutes.

By then my flat was redolent of onions, garlic, and the sea. I got on the phone and invited some people over. Bring bread, I told one friend. Bring red wine, I told another. The stew turned out rich and substantial, astonishingly flavorful, and so tender it drew universal praise from around the table. I like to think even Eric Ripert would have been proud.