If a glass of ouzo and a chewy chunk of octopus is what comes to mind at the cocktail hour, you need a boat with a sail and a following wind to carry you round the Dodecanese, a string of volcanic islands that belong to Greece but are rather closer to Turkey.
Gastronomic delights on the little island of Lipso — if you’re not a yachtie, as many of the visitors are, you can get there on the thrice-weekly ferry out of Samos — are goat’s cheese and cephalopods, mostly octopus, or octopodi. Lipso’s cheese can best be appreciated in the form of pies, tiropita, available hot from the wood oven at Taki’s bakery on the harbor front of the island’s friendly little capital, Lipsi. Meanwhlie, the night’s catch of octopodi are visible throughout the day dangling suckered tentacles like reddish bunting from the awning of Nico’s ouzerie by the quay where the fishermen land their catch. Octopus, for the tender-hearted, are voracious carnivores whose favorite supper, also on the menu at Nico’s, is pipe fish, an eel-like creature no longer than your hand with a pointed snout and a luminous blue-green spine.
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As you might expect, there is more than one way to cook an octopus. There’s octopus simmered with tomato and onion; octopus salad; octopus frittered or fried; octopus preserved under olive oil with vinegar to eat with fat slices of just-cooked yellow potato; octopus cooked with big white beans; octopus stewed with red wine and the peppery oregano that grows wild on Greek hillsides. But the simplest and most delicious is octopodi cooked to order on the grill at Nico’s after the place opens for business at sundown, in the company, say, of a Greek family and friends celebrating a christening or wedding or just having a good time in spite of what’s happening with the European Union in Brussels and the government in Athens.
Octopodi as served at Nico’s is not for the squeamish. Which of course you’re not, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You will already have observed the evening’s menu dehydrating in the morning sunshine when you took your breakfast at Taki’s — open 24-7 because of the yachties — where your order might be Greek coffee (medium sweet), freshly squeezed orange juice and Lipsi’s speciality pita, a puffy open-topped tart filled with grated cheese set with egg. The bakery’s activities, you will observe from the video playing on the countertop, have been blessed by the Orthodox priest from the white-washed tourquoise-domed basilica on the hill where christenings and weddings take place, providing good business for the ouzerie and sharpening appetites for octopodi.
At sunset, when you take your place on one of the blue-painted chairs at a yellow Formica-topped table at Nico’s, your order is taken by a blue-eyed, bearded man with a profile straight off a Greek vase who slings one of the draped octopodi over white-hot charcoal and watches patiently till it sizzles and singes. Then he chops it into bite-sized pieces, drops them on a plate and plunks it down in front of you with a quartered lemon, a jug of ouzo and as many glasses as you have friends — of which you will have plenty if, like me, you’re recording the scene with sketchbook and paints. If your friends are happy and the ouzo flows freely, dancing will follow.
And no, I can’t provide a recipe for grilled octopodi with lemon and ouzo as prepared at Nico’s because preparing octopus is men’s business — so what do I know? You’ll just have to go there and order it yourself. What I can deliver, however, is instructions for octopodi ladolemono, octopus with oil and lemon as prepared by Lazarus, chef patron of the taverna of the same name on Ulysses’s island of Ithaca on the Italian side of the Greek mainland. It may not be the same, but it’s a start.
Octopus salad with oil and lemon
“As a woman,” explained Lazarus. “Octopus is not your business. But as a foreigner in need of instruction, I shall tell you. First, you must capture your octopodi. For a skilled spear fisherman such as myself, this is not difficult. Now comes the work. You must pick the creature up without fear and throw it 40 times against a rock. Less times are needed if it’s small, more if it’s large. First the flesh is hard, but slowly it softens. Now you must rinse it in seawater so that it foams. Unless you do this, it will never soften. You’ll know when it’s ready because the tentacles will curl. You must not take off the skin, as so many ignorant people do. The skin turns red when you cook it, and this is what tells you the octopodi is fresh and good. No Greek would eat an octopus which is skinned and white. To prepare it for a salad, put in a pan and cook it gently with a ladleful of sea water until it’s perfectly tender — allow 20 to 40 minutes. Drain it and slice it carefully into pieces — all of it is good. Dress it with the oil pressed from the fruit of your own olives, and squeeze on it the juice from the lemons from the tree in your own garden. Now you must shake over it a little of the oregano which you have gathered wild in the hills. Now all is ready. Set out the glasses with the ouzo and fetch water from the well, since you will also need to quench your thirst. Now you may call your friends, as many as are suitable for the size of your octopus. If you have too many friends, provide more bread and plenty of olives.”
Main illustration: The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard