Cuttles

Along the South coast of the UK right now and in particular, betwixt Portland and Start Point, an annual phenomenon is occurring. An inshore explosion of abundant seafood, that although increasingly important and vital to the local coastal economies of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, rarely breaks the news in the markets, fishmongers and kitchens of the domestic dining scene.

Of courses we all love our calamari don’t we? Every Mediterranean-bound jaunt provides ample opportunity to savour the delicate and mouthwatering rings and slices of the European squid, (Loligo vulgaris) battered, braised, sautéed and marinated and as a mainstay increment of the ubiquitous paella. In the ristorantes and tavernas of many summer sojourns, countless Brits consume them heartily with natural ease, only to forsake this eminently sustainable and quick-to-mature mollusc on their return, for the standard salmon, prawn and tuna diet.

But, seriously, we’re missing a trick. Right under our noses lurks the same, much vaunted ingredient, wild, seasonal, local and in an abundance that although worthy of our attentions is sadly and consistently overlooked.

The Common Cuttlefish, no less, (Sepia officinalis) is a native of our inshore and shallow seas and has always wandered the same path on its annual spawning migration, relatively unnoticed by chefs and gastronauts, but seized upon by the fishermen of Lyme and Torbay as a lucrative, although often short-lived catch opportunity, that requires far less handling, grading and sorting than their standard catch of white fish and crustacea. A very different specimen to its more slender and tubular cousin the European Squid, it possesses a totally different and almost individual demeanour too, giving a certain character and appeal. (See below, Celia Lewis‘s beautifully accurate illustration, below/top, from her enchanting book  “An Illustrated Coastal Year”)

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It’s a fascinating beast.  A true cephalopod, the males and females of the species are quite distinct, with the females lacking as many pairs of arms. An aggressive and territorial predator, it hunts juvenile fish, crustacea, other bivalves and even its own kind.

They engulf their prey, crushing and rasping shells apart, devouring the contents with their secateur like beaks. The males are very territorially dominant and in fierce and colourful displays of alternating aggression and camouflage they spar with other, competing for the attentions of the females. A true master of disguise, its variable pigmentation allowing it to blend seamlessly into the nearest background.

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An interesting enough creature on a good day, the cuttle comes into its own in times of defence. When unnerved or startled they propel themselves away from danger, cloaking everything in a shroud of black sepia, which blinds and disguises simultaneously. Fight feed or mate are the tenets by which the cuttles live, although actually not that long-lived, (the two year old females expire, having laid their clutches of of up to 1000 eggs).

The youngsters, if they survive the marauding packs of pollack, cod and dogfish inshore, convert their food efficiently and gain weight quickly. Soon (at around four months old) they migrate to deeper Channel waters and follow the shoaling, prey -rich accumulations of juvenile fish, in the confluence of currents offshore, where they overwinter.

So, what of this seasonal and timely offering to our fishermen? How are they able to adapt their methods and take advantage of this unique and particular opportunity? The Devonian port of Brixham, has adjusted itself wisely over the years, to maximise the potential of this entrepreneurial fishery, with beam trawlers and scallopers attuning their gear with relatively little downtime or impact on their day to day running.

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The fact is, cuttlefish need very little handling. They are landed and washed directly on the deck, before being boxed without grading. Prices sought are invariably realised with often in excess £100/ box regularly being fetched at the Brixham auction. So important has this fishery become, that on the strength of a £6m/year turnover, Brixham Trawler Agents have invested wisely in its handling, with a dedicated cuttle-room on part of the market, for the “Black Gold”

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You could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the local bounty being harvested here would translate itself into local sales and a recognition of what a versatile and inexpensive product (roughly half the price of squid) is being produced right on our doorstep. Sadly it’s not the case. Over 90% of the cuttles sold at Brixham are destined for Mediterranean and Far Eastern markets, where there flesh is so highly prized.

However, their popularity here in the UK is ever so slowly, starting to improve. This year’s cunning rebranding of cuttlefish to “Brixham Squid” has had a noticeable effect already, on the amount of fish ending up in local establishments and during my recent efforts on the market’s fish stall at Brixham’s Fishstock festival, we promoted the cuttles to good effect, dressed out or whole, with lightly fried or even sashimied samples on hand to tempt visiting palates.

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And that’s definitely the way forward. Presenting the reticent UK seafood consumer with the notion that a locally sourced, traceable and responsibly fished species such as the cuttlefish can develop into a hugely satisfying meal option that is flavoursome, ethical and surprisingly easy to prepare and cook with just a little guidance.

It has a more refined taste, I believe, than its more commonly consumed cousin, a taste which develops into a sublime and silky back-flavour of creaminess, not present in the squid. Being incredibly low in fat and high in protein, it’s proved itself worthy of many a health-conscious diet, borne out further, by the quantities consumed all around the shores of the Mediterranean.

Gill Meller, the impassioned and intuitively inventive Head Chef at River Cottage, knows a thing or two about the cuttlefish. A huge believer in sourcing seasonally, his just-published triumph “Gather” seeks to transport the reader through field and woodland, across moorland, from farm to orchard and seashore to harbour in a pageant of wild provenance that invokes the innate hunter-gather spirit.

Residing in Dorset, Gill has direct access to some of the freshest natural ingredients that his local waters in and around Lyme Bay can yield, cuttlefish being one of them. He tells me that the fish he uses are a pot-caught by-catch, from local lobster and crab fishermen who land them from the inshore day boats operating out of Lyme Regis.

This low-impact and environmentally sensitive way of fishing is paramount for those wishing to eat responsibly and where opportunities like this exist, it makes it all the more important to create recipes that inspire and evoke the passion necessary for eating food that is derived from the wilderness of our landscapes.

I’m delighted that Gill has agreed to share with me, his appropriately autumnal recipe for slow-cooked cuttlefish with bacon, which he has developed with the flair, knowledge and understanding that only comes from a lifelong love of the outdoors and its environs. I think it also exemplifies the distinct flavour that this hugely underrated mollusc is capable of delivering.

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Do buy his book. Treat yourself not only to a masterclass in creative seasonal cookery, but a journey through the fields and across the shoreline of Dorset. You will find inspiration, not only from the text, but also from the captivating imagery.

Savour with me then, this fabulous recipe and thank you Gill once again.

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Bacon with cuttlefish, lemon, tomato & bay

This is the sort of dish I really like to cook, but also long to eat. It’s forcefully rich, moody
and sweet, and crushingly delicious. It’s a dish that slows down time. I like the way these two robust ingredients, cuttlefish and bacon, submit to the low heat of the oven. They yield and tenderize at the same reluctant rate; they both add, neither subtracts. Pearl-white cuttlefish has a very unique flavour when slow-cooked in this way. If you haven’t had it before, I’d urge you to have a taste.

Serves 4

1–2 tablespoons extra-virgin
olive oil
1 x 400g (14oz)-piece skin-on bacon or pancetta, cut into 4 equal pieces
1 cuttlefish (about 800g– 1kg/1lb 120z–2lb 4oz), ready to cook; ink reserved, if available
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
pared zest of ½ lemon
2 bay leaves
½ glass of white wine
200g (7oz) tinned tomatoes
400ml (14fl oz) pork or chicken stock
salt and freshly ground
black pepper

Heat the oven to 160°C/315°F/gas mark 2–3. Heat a dash of
olive oil in a medium frying pan over a medium–high heat. Place
the bacon pieces in the pan and cook them on each side until golden
and starting to caramelize (about 8–10 minutes). Remove from the
heat and set aside.

Using a sharp knife, cut the cuttlefish body into strips of about
2–3cm ( ¾ –1 ¼ in) wide. Cut the tentacles into small pieces.
Return the bacon pan to a high heat and add all the cuttlefish
pieces. Fry, turning occasionally, for 5–6 minutes, or until the
fish pieces take on some colour.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large heavy-based
casserole on a medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook for
4–5 minutes, until the onion is beginning to soften. Add the fennel
seeds, lemon zest and bay leaves. Cook for a further 2 minutes,
then add the wine. Bring to a simmer, reducing the liquid for
1–2 minutes, then add the tomatoes and the stock, and return to
a gentle simmer. Add the bacon and cuttlefish and stir to combine.
Make sure the bacon is just submerged in the sauce.

Put a lid on the casserole and place it in the oven for 2–3 hours,
or until the bacon is tender and giving, and the cuttlefish is soft.
Remove the casserole from the oven, lift the lid and give the bacon
and cuttlefish a stir. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.
If you have the cuttlefish ink you can stir it in at this point – it will
darken the sauce and enrich the dish. Serve straight away with
hunks of good bread and a crisp salad.

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Gather by Gill Meller (Quadrille, £25.00) Photography: Andrew Montgomery

My grateful thanks to Gill Meller and Hardie Grant publishing and to Celia Lewis.

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