Epic Tales and Atavism
An Epic Tale in which Monsters are Slain and Consumed.
♪♫ When a tail hits your thigh, and a long snout you spy, that's a-moray... ♪♫ Lyrics by Hazelnut.
Folks, this is good huntin', cookin' and eatin'. This is you pitted against the monster of the deep—with the added benefit of a convivial evening in good company with a congenial bunch of friends. The feeling of having braved your fears will make the subsequent relaxation and unwinding all the sweeter. I must warn you, however, that this is neither for the fain-hearted nor for the squeamish: this hunt will separate the men from the boys in the truest sense. The self-inflated macho braggart will be left by the wayside, for that breed is at heart a cowardly bully and no man at all.
The Moray Eel, is a wide-bodied cosmopolitan eel of the Muraenidae family. In the Western Mediterranean, they are commonly found on rocky bottoms, even in shallow water. The Moray is a night feeding creature and difficult to spot in the daytime, when it hides in burrows and holes in the rocks.
You can often find Morays in fish markets, but the best way to eat it is to go scuba diving for it at night. In times when I was more prone to risky pursuits, I remember going after Morays with friends during the summer. We used to hunt them using spear guns. We would usually tie a shred of white cloth to the harpoon tip: the Moray tends to lie in wait in its burrow until a suitable prey comes within striking distance of its redoubtable mouth, and the shred of white cloth entices it out of its lair. The moment to strike is as soon as its sideways nodding head appears, and before it lunges!
They have wide jaws set in a protruding snout, and these powerful mandibles are equipped with large teeth, more designed for tearing than chewing. The back teeth of the Moray are curved backwards. These features, coupled with the Moray's fearsomely strong bite make it a dangerous foe. Whereas a Moray will not normally attack a human, it will do so savagely at any attempt to invade its burrow. Fools often feed them, but the Moray has poor eyesight and a well developped sense of smell: many a diver has lost fingers in feeding one. When a Moray bites you, it is very common for it to latch on to your flesh because of its curved teeth: then there is nothing for it but to slay the critter and prise its jaws apart. Injuries can be devastating.
They are enormously strong animals for their size, and I have once seen a steel harpoon bent at nearly right angles by a 6 foot Moray that had been speared by a friend of mine too far back behind the head. It was a most impressive show of strength and we were both weak-kneed when we got the creature ashore and realized what could have been our fate.
All of this, of course, only made diving for Moray at night more appealing to us! None of our party ever got into real trouble, although there were a few near misses. The locals told tall tales of terrible injuries while sitting around our campfire, sipping strong, straw-yellow Vernaccia di Oristano wine with us. It was all tremendous fun, and the barbecuing of the succulent eels was a large part of it.
So, in the inimitable words of Mrs. Beaton, to make Barbecued Moray Eel, first get yourself an eel. Probably, the dish will technically be just as good if you delegate the capturing of the monster to a fisherman: read, buy the eel at your local fishmarket.
Anyway, having secured your eel, proceed to gut it and to chop it into thick steaks, leaving the skin on; a couple of inches will be thick enough. The flesh is white, succulent and juicy, but a thick steak will ensure you don't end up with a dry and tough result.
Gutting the beast is simple: insert the tip of a razor sharp knife into the anal orifice and, with a sliding motion, towards the mouth, slit the belly open and extract the abdominal contents. Be careful not to let the knife go too deep: you should avoid actually piercing the digestive system. When slitting the belly open, grab the eel with the aid of a dry cloth: it is fiendishly slippery! Wash the eel well in seawater after gutting.
When you have your Moray Eel cut into steaks, place them in a bowl and dress with abundant good olive oil, crushed garlic cloves, plenty of fresh rosemary sprigs, and lashings of good white wine. We used to use Vernaccia di Oristano, a powerful, somewhat sherry-like, straw yellow wine from the north of Sardinia. But that was largely in deference to local custom, although I must say that it is a perfect accompaniment to the succulent flesh and smoky flavor. If you cannot get hold of Vernaccia di Oristano, try a good dry sherry from Jerez de la Frontera.
Around a good roaring driftwood fire, sitting cross-legged on the beach, we would tell tall tales of our fishing exploits while sipping the heady wine of Sardinia. The bowl in which the eel steaks were marinating would be passed around, and we would each take turns at mixing them about to get the flavours suitably compounded.
Roaring fires, tall tales and heady wine are all good sharpeners of the appetite—but I am sure you can do very well with a barbecue in your back yard. Nothing stops you adding the tall tales and heady wine of your choice to the ritual, especially if in the company of a suitable bunch of friends.
At some point—an hour is ample—the slain Moray would be declared ready for its ultimate sacrifice, and we would rake out a goodly bed of embers over which would be strewn numerous sprigs of fresh rosemary. The oiled grill is placed above that smouldering bed, and the Moray steaks are laid upon it. You want to aim for a bed of coals that is hot enough, but not so hot as to set fire to the rosemary sprigs. The rosemary must smoke a little and release it's aromatic essences to waft up unto the steaks. Should any flames appear, promptly extinguish them with judiciously applied splashes of wine (or water, if you really must!). You must, at all costs, avoid flames, as they will spoil the dish. During the cooking, the steaks are basted often with the marinating liquid using sprigs of rosemary as a basting brush.
Depending on the thickness of the steaks, you will find that seven to ten minutes per side should be ample. The secret to succulence is long slow cooking over embers well-covered in ash. When done, the steaks will be a delightfully golden color and, by then, you will have been reduced to delirium by the appetizing wafts from the grill.
We used to cook whole potatoes in their jackets, buried in the ashes (do that well before you start cooking the fish). Also, on a separate grill, we would roast whole eggplants till the skins were all-over black and crispy, then scoop the soft steaming pulp out with a spoon and dress it in a bowl with plentiful lemon juice, coarsly chopped parsley and very finely chopped raw garlic. A goodly drizzle of good olive oil would complete the eggplant salad. Salt it to taste, of course, as you must do with the steaks and potatoes, but use good sea salt or kosher salt. In those halcyon days we, quite unnecessarily, made our own sea salt by evaporating seawater in a large cast iron skillet over the campfire embers. Don't ask me why—some things you just do for the doing of them.
It goes without saying, or should, that, if you cannot procure Moray Eel, the ritual will still be most enjoyably accomplished using salmon, grouper, or any other white or pink fleshed fish conveniently reducible to steaks. If you have caught the fish, so much the better, in every way—both gastronomically because of its freshness and psychically for the satisfaction of the atavic impulse. That said, little can beat Moray Eel that you have battled with under the waves...
The fragrant, juicy steaks, smokey jacket potatoes and eggplant salad make a repast of truly atavic appeal. The whole is baptized by countless wafts of aromatic smoke and frequent libations of good strong white wine... Ah, such memories!
I will leave you, dear reader, with a little enjoinder, or exhortation, if you will: while this ritual can be accomplished, and even with great success, in the comfort of your back yard, do try the "wild" version. There is little as satisfying and nourishing to the soul as an atavic campfire meal, especially on a beach during a balmy summer night. The smell of smoke about your body, the glint of firelight in your eyes and the starry sky above are balm to your soul.
It has been brought to my attention that, in some waters, Moray Eels may have a noxious skin. I have never come accross this phenomenom in the Mediterranean. You would be well advised to enquire locally if this is likely to be the case. When feeding off the "land", whether off flora or fauna, or even fungi, it is always important to know what you are doing, but don't let that stop you: inform yourself. Forewarned is forearmed!