Toyboys & Tentacles

Like most people, my first taste of cephalopod was abroad. I think mine was 1985 and I arrived in Greece for the first time. Flown in to join a rather handsome and rich older man, determined to have his way with me. His house nestled in a bay amid that perfectly Aegean composition of white and blue.

The tiny harbour was lined with small fishing boats, each returning daily with their haul. And the tavernas along the front with their small square tables all served the same wonderful, simple dishes. They were a revelation to me: fava, skordalia, stifado, wild greens, spanakopita, sardines and of course octopus. These eight-armed monsters would hang on wires outside in the sun to become tender during the day, before being grilled over charcoal in the evening.

Those were the days before the food revolution had us in its grip; you might be lucky to get these tasty molluscs on holiday but it was pretty much off the menu back home. Until those pioneers of culinary simplicity, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers came up with the River Café and suddenly it seemed, all sorts of amazing ingredients, that we now take for granted, became commonplace.

There is only a small market for octopus in Britain, which makes it a cheap option to buy from the fishmonger. And though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend drying it in the sun on your balcony, as I did, sensational results are easily perfected.

A barbecue or a griddle plate will produce great results; I toss it in red wine vinegar, paprika and oregano, then literally place it over the heat and let it slowly cook. When it’s done, the red, encrusted, slightly burned exterior gives way to white fondant flesh. You can break off an arm and eat it with your fingers dipped in a lime mayo. The other easy way to cook it is to place the octopus whole in heavy pan and put the lid on, leaving it to cook in its own liquid on a low heat with bay leaves and dash of red wine, for an hour or so until it is shrunken, rust coloured and tender. Then slice it into mouth sized polpetto, mix with olive oil, lemon juice, potatoes, red onion, capers and chopped flat leaf parsley.

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