15 March 2009
After a boisterous passage up the sound, a transit though Galliot Cut and a peaceful night at anchor, we wake up to another great morning. Roger, our good friend on Audacious, scientist and diver extraordinaire, wants to dive for conch this morning. I'm not a great diver so I volunteer to support his efforts from my dinghy.
OK, so now a bit of marine biology lesson....
Queen conch (pronounced CONK, as in hitting your head on a wall...) is the rubbery snail-like creature which inhabits that majestic pink, cochlear shell so familiar from Robinson Crusoe type films with natives blowing theses horns at sunset. They are the rough equivalent to our mussel in terms of ubiquity and delicacy. The appear on the menu of virtually all restaurants and "take-aways" (take-outs) in the Caribbean usually served up as "cracked" conch (deep fried), conch fritters (again deep fried dumpling things), conch salad or conch soup. It is very tasty even if it reminds one of the white wall portion of a Michelin tire both in appearance and consistency.
So, inside this beautiful shell is the beast which essentially is some guts, a large, white muscle and one toe. The toe propels the conch along the bottom of the water. Conch are very easy to harvest; Roger was able to pluck about 18 from the sand in our short expedition. Now the hard part; getting the meat out of the shell and preparing it for cooking.
The locals make it look so easy. They grasp the conch in one hand, holding on to the "toe" so it doesn't retreat back into the shell, whacking a small gash in the top of the shell, inserting a knife to cut away the meat and hauling the thing out. There is a bit of cleaning and cutting off the toe but then the meat needs to be tenderized. Essentially, you've got to beat the crap out of it. To save the inevitable squirting of juices, they are normally put in plastic bags and whacked with a hammer or other heavy instrument. It is then cooked as I spoke about above.
Well, today, following the great harvest, we up anchor and have another great sail to an amazing Cay (Island) called Bitter Guana Cay. There are only three boats anchored off this lovely beach; Audacious, Sea Sharp and one other. Proudly, Roger and I, the great hunter/gatherers lug our booty of conch to the beach to begin what we expect will be an easy process to ready them for cooking. We couldn't have been more misguided. To make a long story short, we wailed away at these beasts with hammers, big knives, and good sized mallet. After almost three exhausting hours of frustrating work, we manage to beat the shells to bits and yank out the elusive morsels of meat. Quite a spectacle!
And we did have spectators. This Cay is inhabited by Iguanas and I mean big ones. Poor little pudgy Chopin would probably make a decent meal for these prehistoric creatures. As soon as you approach the beach in your dinghy, they come lumbering down the beach, their pitiful little brains know enough to realize that cruisers normally bring them food bits. At first they are quite intimidating; Jurassic Park comes to mind. After you get accustomed to them following you and watching your every move. They seem to be particularly amused at Roger and my display of conch harvesting as if to say, "and these guys think we're prehistoric?"