Black Gold on the Devon Coast
Our bit of the south coast has always been a favourite spawning spot for cuttlefish and consequently a good catching place for them. If you walk along the Kingswear side of the river, you’ll see the cuttle boxes stacked up when they aren’t out at sea with an old plastic soda bottle in each one as a lure.
Cuttlefish are in the same family as squid and octopus which we’re generally more familiar with. You’ll definitely know it from the cuttle bone – that white bony thing stuck in budgies’ cages or washed up on the beach, full of tiny air pockets which help the cuttle fish move up and down as it empties or fills them with air.
A proper sea monster, the cuttlefish has 3 hearts, huge eyes, finger like tentacles, wings for swimming, the ability to camouflage themselves and jet propel bursts of sticky black ink at any predators as well as a huge beak for chomping on their own prey; a Dr Who villain of the sea.
Not much is known about what cuttlefish do in their 2 year life cycle between being born and coming back to spawn. Apparently a university programme to find out more was launched a few years ago when they caught some cuttlefish, kept them live and inserted a mini webcam on to the cuttles’ heads thinking they would have fabulous pictures beamed back to the laboratory much like Cassini beaming back images of Saturn. Unfortunately the cuttlefish didn’t think the same way and the last pictures were of the webcam carriers being gobbled up by their mates. Seemingly cuttlefish aren’t fond of change…..
Normally cuttlefish are caught in specialised boats that are completely black to protect the decks from the staining black ink. The catch is sold in an equally black room at Brixham Fish Auction and sent almost entirely abroad to Spain, Portugal, Italy, China where they relish the delicate, tender, bright white flesh. You may well have eaten it in paella and other rice dishes or had black pasta made from its ink.
At the moment though, it’s one of those moments in Nature when there is cuttlefish everywhere and all the boats are bringing it in – not just in cuttleboxes but in their trawls and nets too. You may remember it happened a few years ago when monkfish was in abundance and the boats couldn’t help but catch it; a marine equivalent of your plum tree overloading but unseen to most of us. The price is currently high as the buyers are snapping up the catch which is great for neighbouring Brixham and its economy. While I’ve been writing this, there has been a series of record days at the fish market, each bigger than the last and a lot of it down to the cuttlefish catch.
95% of it is sent abroad but if you get the chance to try it in a restaurant or buy it from our Dartmouth fish mongers, do try it. Cooked well, it’s tender and delicious – you can cook it like calamari and serve it with garlicky mayo, griddle it over a barbecue like a steak, put it in rice dishes as I mentioned and braise it slowly for an hour or so in a rich stew; unusual for fish dishes which are normally cooked hot and fast.
One of our favourite ways of cooking it is long and slow in a red wine sauce full of savoury goodies such as chorizo, olives and capers. We cook ours in the falling heat of our wood fired oven but you can cook in on the hob, in a cool oven at around 150C and in a slow cooker. This recipe is heading for our new book as it’s soooo delicious but here’s a sneak preview –
500g cleaned cuttlefish (ie the body and tentacles)
2tbsp olive oil
1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced
2 red onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 red pepper, deseeded, deveined and cut into thin strips
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
100g chopped cooking chorizo
180ml red wine
1x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
300ml fish or chicken stock
30g pitted and chopped black olives
1tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
- Slice the cuttlefish into 1cm strips.
- Mix all the ingredients together in a large ovenproof pan and season well with salt and pepper.
- Put the lid on the pan and put it in the oven at 150C for 2 hours or until the cuttlefish is tender.
- When it is, take the pan out of the oven and serve the cuttlefish stew with rice, creamy mashed potatoes or good bread and a tomato salad.