The Fisherman and the Octopus
"Oh my God! What is he doing to that cat?" I shouted into the dawn.
I don't know, perhaps I was dreaming about cats. The harbor towns of all the Greek Isles are alive with cats. There are cats underfoot at nearly every seaside taverna. They can be more or less shy, sometimes wild-eyed, and always on the make for scraps and handouts. The Greeks have co-existed on the margin of the blue Mediterranean with countless generations of semi-feral Felidae. Their numbers appear to be tolerated the same way the Greeks will famously accept the summer hordes of brash and semi-nude tourists.
I must have been dreaming about cats! The sound that roused me from my repose in the sunny room overlooking the Libyan Sea had a remarkably wet-cat-like quality to it. It was a rhythmic and soggy slapping with a bit of a hollow whop to it . . . "Schlop!" "Schlop!" "Schlop!" "Schlop!"
The cadence was wave-like, slower than a heartbeat, and called me out of my bed so insistently I had not bothered to put on my glasses when I stumbled to the window. What I observed was a man standing knee-deep in the water. He was forcefully throwing a limp and sodden object the size of a house cat onto a rock. "Schlop . . . schlop . . . schlop."
I had never seen a Greek mistreat a cat. I was completely baffled by my assumed presumptions and wondered: What kind of kitty mischief could have prompted such harsh treatment? You might imagine my astonishment as I watched the fellow repeatedly pick the thing up, and with a big overhand sweep, dash it back onto the rock . . . schlop. I jumped into my Levis, grabbed my glasses, shouted, "It's a cat!" to my bewildered traveling companion still in bed, and ran out the door and down to the waterside.
The village of Agia Galini, on the south shore of the island of Crete, is a place I hold dear for many romantic and culinary reasons. It is the kind of deeply earthy village where you might see an old man smile solicitously at your wife as he delicately tucks a fragrant sprig of fresh basil behind his ear. It is from the imposing fossil-rich limestone cliffs sheltering the harbor that the locals say Icarus leaped into the sun. In Galini they sing and drink and dance until dawn, and on the shoulders of summer you are not allowed to be a stranger. Be it in a home, or restaurant, the kitchens are always welcoming, and guests are encouraged to hang out and lift the lids on all the pots. Agia Galini is a great village for traditional Mediterranean cooking, and you will always find a place set at the table for you there.
The harbor at Agia Galini is home to a colorful fleet of fishing boats, and you would think the crystalline waters would be teeming with fish. This is not the case, however! When the local boats do put out for a day on the water, the take is a meager and decidedly mixed bag of a few commercially viable fish along with an astonishing variety of tiny crabs, neon-colored soupfish, cuttlefish, the odd toothy eel, sea snails, and an octopus or two.
Village restaurateurs are generally on hand dockside to meet the boats and haggle for the best specimens. The majority of the catch is then boxed and carried up the steep and winding steps into town, and sold by the kilo on the street corners.
An octopus is a particularly prized catch. Sometimes it is taken with a gig by a person free-diving amongst the rocks, or still by the age-old method of setting a string of clay pots on the sea floor with a catch buoy. The fisherman visits every few days to pull up any unsuspecting octopi who had mistakenly thought a clay pot would be a good place to take up residence. Larger octopi rarely show up for sale on the street corner, as they are either sold right off the boat, or go home to grace the fisherman's table.
In the early spring of 1983, I was lucky enough to learn something about cooking octopus. My lesson began when, with my glasses on, I ran down to the harbor to find a smiling fisherman energetically tenderizing a large octopus by beating it against the rocks.
Schlop . . . schlop . . . schlop . . . .
Illustration adapted from Dickinson, Oliver, "The Aegean Bronze Age," Cambridge World Archeology, Cambridge University Press, 1994 (page 119, Figure 3, stirrup jar, Late Minoan IB).