A few days ago, I was gazing at the sea, trying to align my breath with the rhythm of the water. Soon after my salted mind had started resting, something made my focus blurry. Something grey, something small. First I thought it’s a sea star. Together with sea urchins, sea stars are permanent guests in the bay. My usually untamed mind broke easily with the arduously reached silence and already picked up its regular speed: no it can’t be a sea star, it’s grey. Sea stars are normally red or brown. This moves to fast. Oh it’s so elegant. Like ballet. Dangerous? Oh, it’s jellyfish. Wait, no, it’s not jelly. Jellyfish is jelly. When jellyfish bites you, it hurts. Can I swim here later? This looks like a flame. Flame in the water? Yeah right! But what is it? Go closer! Slowly! Big head. It looks like a sea spider. Wait! It’s… It’s…
„Mother! Come closer! Sister! Nephew! Look! It’s an octopus!!! Look at it! Shhhhh….“
And we were starring and starring and starring.
First it danced for us. Then it was starring back. Then the octopus hugged a very small fish with two arms, pulled it close to itself and gently hid it in its mouth until the fish had completely vanished. This was the most elegant appropriation I’ve ever seen. There was nothing violent, nothing bloody, nothing aggressive in this act. An idiot would ask if the octopus is bad? Is the sea a bad place to live in? Is the fish a victim? Who is guilty? Could a human do something to save someone? The smart one does`t ask. But the death necessarily appears to him like an answer, a moment in timeless space, serene and unscrupulous. Breathing out. Nothing to be afraid of. Quiet the contrary: it looked like a opportunity. It was the universal need combined with pleasure.
Two days before I saw this living octopus, I had an octopus for dinner- dead. It was a fresh catch, one to one. The scenery is very simple: one morning one young man stood up, put his neoprene suit on and dived into the blue. Using his experience and virtuosity, he hunted this octopus and sold it to people from the island. To its inhabitants who depend on the sea food. For the island is like a big, white rock, that humans frequently bite and chew, making themselves a „natural“ habitat. The stone gives you a house, a building, a school, a natural isolation, a grave, but it never gives you food. Grains and rice, beans and potatoes, nuts and seeds, most of the animals are longing for the warmness and softness of dark earth. Fish, olives, salt and herbs are the burning and nourishing energy on this quarry. And a pure pleasure.
Octopuses are well known for making people pleasure, not only on the table, but also in the bedroom. Only there, instead of humans, octopuses are going oral. Based on the ancient Taishokan tale of the diver woman who stole a jewel from the Dragon King’s Palace at the bottom of the sea, the japanese artist Kitao Shigemasa drew an image of an octopus and diving woman in his erotic book Yo-kyoku iro bangumi of 1781. This painting was an inspiration for the artist Hokusai who around 30 years later made the most fascinating shunga woodblock with this motive: Having dragged the diving woman into a cleft between two rocks, a large octopus is taking its pleasure, using almost all of its eight legs to coil around and play with her arms, legs and nipple. A second, smaller octopus simultaneously ‘kisses’ her mouth.
It is an intensive image with almost baroques forms and exquisite coloring. Lying there like a corps, the women gives her body to the hungry octopuses. Her long sighs, cries and exclamations fill the dialogue text surrounding them. Lost in the tight hug of numerous tentacles and under the penetrant gaze of the creatures, the woman offers herself to the pleasure of le petite mort.
Many other japanese shunga artists like Katsukawa Shuncho or Suzuki Harunobu used this motive as a pattern for the next interpretations of this image. In Europe the image fascinated many writers and end-of-the-century artists from diverse artistic movements who went on making their own versions, including Rops, Khnopff, Corrêa, Rassenfosse, Rodin and Picasso.
I found my inspiration for this dish in Aida and Boris, our lovely hosts, friends, and almost neighbors on the island. Aida was born close to Dubrovnik, and she is one of the best chefs of dalmatian food I’ve ever met. And she always selflessly shares her knowledge with me.
Octopus is a common food in Dalmatia and this is why you can call this dish traditional. But the way of preparing it, in peka, has it’s own supra-regional history. Peka, or how we call it in Bosnia „Sac“, is a large metal or ceramic lid like a shallow bell with which bread dough, meat, vegetables or pastry are covered for baking, and over which ashes and glowing coals are placed. It enables even, convection baking, and the bell shape allows the steam to recirculate, which makes the food to remain juicy, and flavors intermixed. The bell itself probably comes from bell-shaped ovens used for flatbread baking in middle-east. Today, the baking appliance is commonly used by restaurants and sometimes homes all over Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Greece, Kroatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo.
This was my second time preparing this dish with Aida and I’m very happy to share the recipe with you. But you know, it is not everything in food. It is in making the fire, waiting for the right temperature, chatting, sipping wine, being bitten by mosquitos, cooking under the sunset, eating under the moonlight.
Thank you again, our dear hosts!
Octopus in peka
Ingredients (serving 6):
1 fresh octopus weight of 3 kg
1 kg young potatoes, peeled and quartered
1/2 kg onions, peeled and quartered
1/2 kg bell pepper, peeled and quartered
5 Tsp olive oil
few brunches of fresh rosemary
1. Wash and clean the octopus. If you are on the seaside (and I suggest you to make this recipe only with fresh octopus on the seaside), clean the octopus in the sea. Put out the entrails, separate the head and tentacles. Let the octopus peaces dry. Don’t salt it, because the octopus is already enough salty!
2. Make the fire. Try to make enough cinder. You musst be able to cover the whole bell with it. This takes about 30 min. During the last 10 minutes put the bell over the cinder, so it gets very hot. The food must be cooked from all sides with the same intensity.
3. In a deeper baking trail put the octopus and pour only 2 Tsp olive oil on it. You don’t need more oil, because the octopus is already fat.
4. Remove the bell from the cinder and place it aside. Using the iron scoop, make a cinder-free space in the middle of the oven, moving the cinder on the sides. Place the baking trail in the middle, but not on the cinder. Close it with the bell. Take the iron scoop again and place the cinder all over the bell and the baking trail. Cook for 10 min.
5. Remove the cinder from peka. Remove the bell, the octopus should have now a nice, red color, and add the vegetables, rosemary and pour everything with the rest of the olive oil. Put the bell back over the baking trail, move it in the middle of the oven and cover again with the cinder. The more the cinder the better. Cook for another 45 min.
6. Again, remove the cinder from the bell, remove the bell and test if the octopus is done. It should be very soft, very well combined with vegetables and juicy. If the octopus need more time, but it back for another 10 minutes. The cooking time, depends on the quality of the cinder and on the size of the octopus.
7. Remove everything from the cinder and set for another 10 minutes aside. Serve with good wine. And don`t forget to dunk bread into the juices.