You may not be of the tentacle persuasion. These are the tentacles of squid, and we peeled back the skin, disgorged the innards, threw away the eyes, and sliced the slippery white meat into rings. The tentacles we left alone, simply dragged them through flour and threw them into a bath of hot oil where they instantly froze, like the statues in Pompei. The squid is from Monterey, considered ‘local’ here, though it is over 300 miles away, going north.
This is strange to me, unfathomable really, given that we can drive to the sea in 45 minutes and swim in gorgeous, crystalline water. Malibu: a place where we have witnessed the sight of three stately California grey whales breaching the surface, their wondrous grey sheen, their size silencing, so that all we could do was point open-mouthed and watch as they shot up their water for us through their blow holes (not sure if that is the technical term). And then there are the pods of dolphins, the seals that pop up nearby as you’re swimming, darkly sleek and chubby. The pelicans fly slowly in a line, quite low, as if to be menacing. I don’t know where they are going.
Today we watched a man pull a ray fish from the sea, a huge flapping thing that he slipped back into the water, pushing it in the direction of the outgoing wave until it complied and disappeared. The place is teeming with life. But the fish we buy comes from Santa Barbara or beyond.
My memories of calamari – squid cut into rings, dipped in flour and fried – are always connected with Greece, in particular Paxos and Anti-Paxos, where we sat on the beach our skin salted and burnt and in our mouths we would pop fried whitebait, calamari, crisp sardines, everything wetted by lemon juice, our lips and fingers stinging. The fish was caught in front of us. It came from the sea that we’d bathed and washed our hair in (on the days when we couldn’t afford a hotel and had to sleep on the beach). We had the luxury of local, where local meant watching a man climb out of the water and carry our lunch to the grill. Where we’d walk to the next beach to have a change of scene and escape the two men who had latched on to us from Corfu (“A couple of beers, couple of beds, couple of tokes, couple of smokes”).
I was a silly, naive and broke seventeen year old travelling round Greece with forty quid and a bedsheet. Yet we lived ridiculously: Greek salad, shoals of calamari and rice-stuffed peppers, glasses of inky wine. I remember the coolness of a stairwell in the scorching August afternoon and a throttlingly cold Coca Cola. And then the emergence into Gatwick, the drizzling English rain on our leather sandals. I went with my friend Brigid, and for some reason now lost to me, we fell out and boarded separate carriages going back to London. It was a shame because we had had fun and been quite dare-devil; we flew to Corfu with an Australian man my mother had met in the street and employed to ‘butcher’ (in retrospect) our kitchen. He deserted us almost immediately and we found ourselves straggling along a highway in the mad August heat with no idea where we were going to stay. A boy of around eight found us panicking at eleven, and took us home. We walked in and were led to a room where we stayed the night and then boarded a ferry to Paxos the following day. She walked faster than me, perhaps that was it. I used to watch her hightailing it over a hill and not even bother, and when we got back to London she just carried on walking.
I don’t know why this story came to me when this is Monterey squid from the Pacific, and not the Ionian sea and Malibu is not for a minute Greece. I suppose there’s something of the ruggedness and people are, on the whole, brown in both places. As in weathered and salty. And the squid – it was nice to buy the squid whole and dismember it, and to see its lovely purple sheen. And I had no idea squid had eyes. I don’t remember the eyes.
To clean the squid, pull the head away from the body and with your fingers empty out the body cavity (which includes the ink sac – wear an apron). The cuttlebone will be in there too, transparent and flimsy – remove it. Now gently pull the wings free from the sides and slip off the purple membrane (this is fun). Rinse under running water and drain. Cut into thickish rings (about 1cm diameter).
Keep the tentacles together by slicing just above the join. Remove the eyes and mouth. I keep the tentacles intact and fry them whole. The five squid I bought made up 1lb which was just enough for the two of us. There are those who like to soak the calamari in milk to tenderize it, and having done this once I don’t think it makes a great deal of difference. So, when you’re ready to cook, mix together equal amounts of plain flour and cornflour (cornstarch) with a pinch of sea salt. Fill a large, heavy-based pan a third full with sunflower or vegetable oil and heat. Throw in a pinch of flour and if it sizzles furiously, you’re ready to go. Drain the squid pieces well and pat dry, then drag them through the flour and shake off any excess. Fry in batches and when golden brown remove them to some kitchen paper. Sprinkle with salt and serve quickly, while they’re hot, with wedges of lemon.