Saturday, August 30, 2008

Islay seafood

No recipes as such in this post, just a paean of praise to the fresh seafood on Islay.

This is the second year that we've gone across to Islay to spend some time with Angus and his son Joseph (pictured below fishing for crabs). We stayed at the house they have had built there, across the bay from Port Ellen. I was at school and then at university with Angus, and also at university with his partner (and Joseph's mum) Penny, who sadly died three years ago.

For me, there is something magical about the place. A mix, I guess, of the island, the house and its setting, and spending time with people I love.

And, of course, you can also get great seafood there. We bought some live lobsters from a fisherman, and he threw in a bag of crab claws and some velvet crabs for free. Earlier on we had bought some scallops from a little processing plant set up in what I think used to be Port Ellen's schoolhouse, and I also had some magnificent oysters at the Islay Fair.

The scallops were great (and about half the price of what I would normally pay), although the scene was a bit 21st-century Dickensian: a large worksurface surrounded by half a dozen eastern Europeans shucking away frantically. The sort of thing which makes me thankful to have landed myself the relatively cushy job of being a translator.

We took the meat out of the crab claws and Angus used it to make crab linguini. The lobsters were boiled then grilled and eaten with some homemade mayonnaise, the scallops were pan-fried with a bit of garlic, and the velvet crabs were just boiled and eaten plain.

There's not a lot of meat in the velvet crabs, but if you approach them as a large prawn rather than a small crab then you shouldn't be disappointed. (I searched the web for recipes, but mostly came across long and complicated procedures for making velvet crab bisque - crema de nécoras in Spanish - which involved moulis and muslin sieves.)

To dye for
In Britain there's a tendency to think of the work done retrieving meat from shellfish as an inconvenience which may or may not be justified by the prize at the end. In Spain, there are lots of snacky seafoods which involve quite a bit of cracking, biting, poking or sucking. These include crab claws (bocas), winkles (burgaillos) eaten with a pin, and cañaillas, a type of sea snail whose shell ends in a long spike, which provides a handly implement for removing the flesh. (An example of evolution backfiring, if ever there was one!) The scientific name is bolinus brandaris, but their common name in English is spiny dye murex, because their mucus was extracted and used by the Phoenicians to produce Tyrian purple. The dye was one of the ancient and medieval world's most expensive commodities and was used to dye the togas of triumphant generals and of emperors in Ancient Rome. Production eventually ceased with the fall of the Byzantine Empire (1453) and was replaced with vegetable and then modern chemical dyes.

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