March 25, 2016
After ten days of hanging out at Allan’s Cay (which is pronounced “key” locally), we met a very nice couple, Neil and Pam, who anchored their boat Reverie behind us. After learning that we were newbies to the cruising lifestyle, they took us out to the reefs around Robert’s Cay just north of Allan’s to teach us the tricks of the trade to hunting lobster and conch. Alas, the lobsters were nowhere to be found that day but I did find us a couple of very nice sized conchs. The creatures living inside these shells are very tasty when prepared correctly but getting them out of their shell requires a certain amount of skill.
Missy Warily Eying My First Conchs
Neil showed me the technique on my first conch, using the forked end of a claw hammer to crack a slot in the top of the shell between the third and fourth spiral rings. He then inserted a long, thin filet knife into the crack and slid it back and forth to cut the tendon that attached the critter to its shell. It’s then just a matter of grabbing the creature’s foot through the shell’s opening and pulling it out.
Suffice it to say, whoever first pulled one of these things out of its shell and said “hey, we could eat this” was definitely a forward thinker. There is little to nothing about the looks of these oversized snot-wads that makes you think “yum!” However, Pam showed me how to cut away the yucky parts and then skin the rest of it. By the time the cuttin’s done, you’re left with a piece of meat about 1/3rd the size of the original creature. This you then pound to tenderize and then prepare as you like; popular options are raw in a conch salad with onions, sweet and hot peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and lime and orange juice, chopped, rolled up in dough and deep fried into a conch fritter or just battered and fried to make what is known locally as “cracked conch”.
I took the meat from that first home-caught conch, chopped it up and then added it to the chick pea and lentil curry I was making for dinner that night. Delicious! If you’ve never tried conch before, the meat has a similar consistency to calamari but is sweet like lobster. I can see experimenting with a curried conch recipe in the future.
The next day I was ready to solo on the second bigger conch I’d found. My first challenge was that we didn’t have a claw hammer onboard. We have two hammers but neither one has a claw (little need for driving nails on fiberglass boat). I ended up using our ball-peened hammer and a marlin spike as a chisel. I opened up a hole in the top of the shell and then worked our filet knife in to cut the tendon like Neil had shown me and then pulled on the critter’s foot…no dice. I kept opening the hole wider and working the knife and he kept hanging on. I was clearly missing the right spot. Eventually (and after many choice words) I had the whole top knocked off the shell (so much for cleaning and keeping it), got to the right spot and got him out. Not pretty and any native Bahamian would have laughed me off the boat but hey, it was my first attempt.
My First Conch Removal (note that the shell’s top is obliterated!)
The cleaning went much better and when I was done we ended up with a really nice sized piece of conch. However, as I was cleaning up afterward I heard Cindy scream from salon. At first I thought the conch meat had moved like it was alive and startled her; Pam had warned it might do that when its fresh. But no, the screams continued. I bolted for the salon and found Cindy holding her left index finger over her head and calling for a paper towel…quick. Cleaning our razor sharp filet knife, she had slipped and cut herself…bad. The cut was down to the bone.
Cindy’s Cut Finger
Fortunately, we have a full EMT-style medical kit onboard (something Cindy insisted upon), so we packed the finger off with sterile pads, wrapped it in gauze and kept it elevated. Once the bleeding had slowed, we carefully unwrapped it, irrigated the wound with saline solution, cleaned around the cut with anti-septic wipes and then bandaged it. Later that evening, once the bleeding had stopped completely we removed the bandage, cleaned the wound again with antiseptic wipes and then applied steri-strips (these act like stitches). Cindy also did a week-long round of antibiotics twice a day to help prevent any infection. The cut has healed up nicely but the area is still tender and Cindy has to be careful not to grab anything haphazardly.
Cindy’s Bandaged Finger
On a positive note though, the conch was out of this world. I prepared it cracked conch-style, Cindy’s favorite version. I pounded if for several minutes using our fish bat (next season we will bring a tenderizing mallet with us) and then pulled the meat into large chunks. Following Pam’s advice, I simply dredged these in seasoned flour and pan-fried them in a little hot oil, just like a good ol’ southern chicken-fried steak. These we dipped in chipotle mayonnaise…delicious! Both of us agreed that we preferred the chicken-fried version to the batter-dipped version we had had in Bahamian restaurants; much lighter and the sweet flavor of the conch meat comes out much better.
Now we’re on the lookout for a store selling claw hammers. So far, no luck at either Highbourne and Staniel Cays. Such is life in the out islands…items that you can easily find at home take some serious searching. But you can’t beat the views.