On a hot summer’s night, have you ever eaten scallops seasoned with sliced garlic, salt and pepper cooked in their shell on a BBQ whilst sitting under a silver starlight night surrounded by family?
Or maybe abalone, beaten to an inch of its life and quickly seared then smeared with a mild chilli-oil? What about crayfish cut in half, grilled and drizzled with a hollandaise sauce? Or even calamari and octopus cooked with flash heat and then doused in a blue cheese mayonnaise? What about blue crab boiled and cracked open with a nutcracker, then plunged into a sweet chilli and lemon-infused vinegar? Maybe you’ve had muscles as big as your fist cooked in a tomato and chilli-based sauce served with freshly made sourdough buns, all whilst balancing the whole lot on your lap as the summer cicadas chirp hidden in the hills?
Yeah, I have.
And I HATE seafood!
I grew up surrounded by a vast seafood-loving family who would holiday together during the Summer in a little fishing village called Windy Harbour. – Windy by name, windy by nature. That was its downside, but to live 50 paces from the ocean surrounded by family and friends in an unspoiled beachside environment. Windy can’t be beaten!
The little village has one road, with all the huts built out of a hard redwood called Jarrah: it’s as tempered and long-lasting as steel. The community is surrounded on one side by a low dark green salted scrub as far as the eye can see, and on the other, crumbling yellow sandstone cliffs, whose ancient collapsing toes dive deep into the Southern Ocean.
Seafood for every dinner was a given, whether you liked it or not!
My Uncle Colin, the madman of the family, held two important titles. Firstly, he was a passionate and accomplished diver and secondly, he had been run over by a tractor, gotten up and walked away. Watching my uncle drive up to the cliffs in his rusty old Landcruiser, don his black wet suit with the dull grey weights around his waist and swim out along the cliff’s toes searching for tea is burned into my childhood memory in vibrant summer colour.
I often wondered what it was like for my uncle, swimming underwater in contemplative silence, his breathing the only sound echoing through his mind as he skilfully hunted scallops and crayfish.
How wonderful for anyone to be able to exist in such a calm and tranquil existence!
But then the change would come.
By the early evening, Uncle Colin would find himself surrounded by a noisy family. Laughter, kids yelling and squealing, embellished stories told, yarns woven and ‘brags’ abounding. There he was, surrounded by this hubbub, watching his morning’s work be appreciatively gobbled down by those he loved.
The seafood catcher was always celebrated, no matter who they were. He was king, and we youngsters the apprentices.
As kids, we’d all be piled into a boat, bumped over the swell following the green channel out to the Mother and Calf Island to fish. Along the way, we were kept busy by slathering ourselves in sunscreen and eating the packed lunch our mothers had made. This picnicking on the high seas was finished well before we’d arrive at ‘Dad’s secret fishing spot’.
Whenever we hit a school of fish, my father would complain that we were too good at fishing, terrible at loading bait on the hook and dreadful at giving him time to roll a cigarette. Despite his objections, the fish bucket would fill quickly and then back to shore we would go.
Firstly, the cleaning of the boat had to occur; it took precedence over everything else.
Whilst standing on the shore, I would watch eagle-eyed as my father and uncles vigilantly lined the boat up, ensuring it could be safely winched onto the awaiting trailer. It always had to be done first go; otherwise, it was a bad omen, and lots of swearing would occur. Then both boat and trailer were driven up from the ocean and over to one or another uncle’s backyard and safely washed down with fresh water, reducing the chance of corrosion. Finally, when the boat was safely packed away, we would go to the back of our hut where the concrete wash trough and scaling block lived. This is where the lessons began.
Us youngsters were given the task of scaling, gutting, and cutting off the head of one fish; this was always accompanied by the “Eat what you catch and only catch what you can eat” lecture from Dad and the uncles. Respect for life’s values drummed into us in a never-ending beat. Once the art of fish preparation had been individually mastered, Dad and the uncles would get down to finishing the job. All fish were washed and prepared for tea with deft hands, their expertise on display.
The Fish-heads were taken to Uncle Colin, who would make fish-head and vegetable soup. This soup is a delicacy I have never tried because it contains eyeballs! I have been assured of its deliciousness on many, many occasions, but never ever have I been tempted.
If we were lucky… someone would have caught prawns, and as kids, it was our job to shell this delightful little crustation. Making sure when we did, that the prawns were clean and ready to be eaten by the adults, who would either cure them in balsamic vinegar, cook them on the barbie in butter and garlic or even sear them with lemon pepper and olive oil.
Cleaning prawns was a very important job worthy of a lot of praise.
My complaints that the juice and shells made my hands itchy were always supported with thoughtful comments such as, “Well, go wash your hands then.”
Oh yes, those were the days.
It’s funny how one comment on one summer’s night from one Uncle can stay with you for the rest of your life.
That comment is one of my clearest childhood memories, and it occurred while sitting on my Uncle Colin’s back veranda.
The wood was old, grey and smoothed from the years of my family’s multiple feet. Opposite, was the smokey BBQ which had been expertly lit. Once the cast iron plate on top was hot enough, water from the rain tank was sprayed onto it, causing the metal to spit, hissing steam into the general area, making the lights strung from tree to roof and back again glow in a hazy white mist.
Once the steam had cleared and the BBQ heated once more, the beer cleanse was required.
A stubby was poured down in a flourish on the hot plate. Why? I don’t know. But after that, the metal egg slice came out, scraping and slushing the beer about. Finally, when Dad and all the uncles were happy, it was the turn of the oil to be applied.
The first application was merely there to clean the plate; how it would have been unclean from two steams and scrape is anyone’s guess. The first slick of cheap oil was wiped off with paper towels, which were chucked into the red-hot coals below, cindering to ash in seconds.
Then, and only then, was the home-pressed olive oil brought out, ready for the entrees to be placed delicately upon the meticulously prepared plate.
The abalone had been beaten and sliced just right. It would only take seconds to cook through, seasoned and then flipped off the hot plate onto a serving dish. The BBQ would then be readied for the next application.
I watched as the white bone china plate was passed around; children were expected to develop their pallets by tasting every piece of seafood in front of them. My cousins dipped their toothpicks eagerly into the bowl, spearing their slices with vigour, lips smacking in anticipation.
Then, finally, it was my turn.
My father stood in front of me, smiling desperately with encouraging looks.
My Uncles watched to see how it would go.
I was the fussy one!
I was the one who didn’t like seafood.
The one who gagged on crab.
Spat out crayfish.
Who squealed if I saw an octopus tentacle.
The little poppet who always got the little fish’s bones stuck in her throat.
Would little fuss pot take a bight?
My father, holding the bowl of steaming fish flesh cooked to perfection, waited with bated breath in front of my undecided and wavering hand.
Uncle Colin smiled from next to the BBQ, his pride of place position. “I caught that one just for you!” He nodded and grinned, “It was hiding right on top of the cliffs toes, where the swells the strongest and where Big Bighty Eel lives. You know the one who always tries to snap my fingers off for his tea.”
The twinkle in his eyes shone out from under the backyard lights.
“But I knew you’d like it. And when the shell dries, just for you, I’ll grind all the outer crust down to the mother of pearl shell, and you can have it for your dressing table. It will be all yours.”
Except for abalone and my little mother of pearl abalone shell, I hate seafood!