It was just after noon, the sun was getting hotter. A few hours earlier, the walk from the small seaside town to the ferry had been long but bearable. Not now. Walking back to the hotel in the broiling sunlight, after visiting the beach on the other side of the lagoon, promised to be hellish. As if in answer to an unspoken prayer, a dinky tourist train that catered mostly to people who couldn’t walk in any weather was heading towards the ferry landing as the boat docked. A few people got off the train, but before anyone from the boat could get near enough to board it, the train drove around the traffic circle adjacent to the ferry ticket office and headed back to town.
Linda and Tony, two Americans who were beyond middle age but had no trouble walking to the ferry before the sun began to blaze, looked at each other, shrugged and laughed.
“I thought it was too good to be true when that train showed up,” Tony said. “And it was.” A few charter buses stool idle in the parking lot, but there were no taxis or any other mode of public transportation anywhere to be seen. They would have to hoof it.
The road back to town was a charmless new one, probably built with European Union money to give a boost to this southern Portuguese town that was mobbed with tourists during the summer season but was dead the rest of the year. There were no trees and no shade anywhere along its two-mile or so length. The only refuge from the sun was what appeared to be a prehensile bus shelter, for a bus service that was still in the planning stage and would not be coming anytime soon.
Tony scanned the road ahead as he and Linda walked along, hoping that one of the taxis whose drivers congregated at a cafe in the town centre might come fishing for fares at the ferry port. When they were about a third of the way back to town, he saw a cab coming but instead of flagging it down, he watched it drive past — empty except for the driver.
Linda looked at him, puzzled.
“I’m sure it was on call to pick up somebody from the ferry,” he said, giving an explanation that explained nothing at all. Tony had a longstanding love-hate relationship with taxis that spanned several continents. When he was a boy he recalled driving through Manhattan in a cab with a friend, with the windows rolled down and the two of them yelling “hot diggity-dog” at the top of their lungs. It was bliss. He remembered the smell of that cab, a blend of leather cleaner and stale, oil-scented air from being parked in city garages, and in its interior spindly chrome window handles and two rear-facing jump seats.
Later, when he was working in Africa, he was picked up at a hotel by a cab that was so broken down that it could only make right turns. He had gotten out as soon as he realised what was going on, but the cabman had insisted on being paid — for nothing. He could tell stories about getting so angry with cabbies at airports around the world, haggling over the fare to his hotel. Sometimes in a fury he had ended up walking, suitcases and all, on the road into town. Cabs would drive past until he gave up, and he’d pay the same as if he’d taken it from the terminal.
The cab that had been empty heading towards the ferryport drove back past them, filled with passengers. Maybe they’d called for it, maybe not. But it was getting hotter, and Tony and Linda were only two thirds of the way to town.
“Do you need a taxi?,” a man’s voice said. A mini-van, painted black like all the others, slowed almost to a halt beside them. “Yes, we do,” Tony said, with relief, as he and Linda bundled in. “We’d like to go to Santa Luzia.”
They paid all of five euros and change for the 20-minute ride to the fishing village that sometimes is called the Octopus Capital of the World. The driver, who spoke good English, asked where they wanted to be dropped off and Tony said they wanted to eat octopus.
“The best octopus restaurant”
“I will take you to the best octopus restaurant,” the driver said, beaming.
The place was a white-fronted hacienda facing the lagoon that runs up and down the coast, separating the mainland from the beach. The terrace was full up but Linda and Tony were shown to one of the last available tables inside. After they arrived, people for the most part were turned away unless they had reservations.
“This is fantastic,” Tony said as he scanned the menu that offered octopus prepared at least 16 different ways. There were also shellfish and shrimp dishes that would appeal to Linda, but octopus was what the place was all about.
Tony watched platters of food going by — broiled octopus, octopus baked with apricots and almonds, octopus stew, octopus croquettes, octopus with tagliatelle noodles. As he eyeballed the room, he spotted an older man, with a lined face, glasses and dark hair, eating something that was almost indescribable. Tony could see octopus tentacles on the man’s plate, and they were moving. With a sharp knife, the man would cut into them and, when he lifted a forkful to his mouth, they were still squirming, like fat, live worms. This, Tony thought, must be the most amazing sashimi ever served.
“I’ve got to have that,” Tony said to Linda, who was watching the parade of octopus dishes with dismay. He got her to turn around and look at the spot where the man was sitting, across the dining room.
“Oh, Tony! No!,” she cried. “That’s horrible.” But she knew from the look on his face, and from past experience that no culinary challenge was too great for him. He would order the live octopus and nothing she could say would dissuade him.
When the harried waitress showed up, Linda was disappointed to learn they were sold out of clams. There was no way she was going near any octopus so she ordered shrimp.
Tony hadn’t been able to find the live octopus dish on the menu, so he told the waitress he wanted what the man was eating on the far side of the restaurant, and pointed to where he was sitting.
The waitress fixed him with an icy stare. “That is a dish that is not appreciated by visitors,” she said. “I would recommend the broiled or baked octopus, they are very popular, but not that.
“Also, you have to order it 24 hours in advance,” she added, as if sensing that she needed to erect additional barriers.
Tony felt that same wave of anger sweep over him that he’d felt when he dealt with taxi drivers. The waitress made him more determined than ever to have the live octopus.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but could you tell the chef that my wife and I are members of the Chaine des Rotisseurs gourmet dining society. I would like to speak to him personally to see if he will make an exception and serve me the special octopus dish.”
The waitress, who had been all smiles when she came to their table, assumed a black expression. “I will see what I can do, sir,” she said, and marched towards the kitchen.
Linda, who had been listening to this exchange hoping against hope that her husband would for once give in, glanced again at the table where the man was finishing up the live octopus. A tentacle protruding from his mouth gave a last wiggle before disappearing inside. She almost threw up.
The chef had a worried look
The chef, a thin man with a black moustache and sporting a white toque, had a worried look as he approached their table.
“Eliana tells me that you would like to order the live octopus, but I must inform you that this is a very unusual ‘specialidad de la casa’ and we do not serve it except on special order,” he said, in a tone that suggested he hoped this would be the final word on the matter. Tony was having none of it.
“I must tell you, maitre de cuisine, that you have only reconfirmed me in my choice. Everywhere I go, I have the speciality of the house, and then report back to my esteemed worldwide colleagues at the Chaine des Rotisseurs. Being told that you could not serve me this dish would not sit well with our members – our very influential and wealthy members,” Tony said, with special emphasis on the last part of his sentence.
The chef, sensing that resistance was futile, turned his head partly away from the table and started talking to the waitress in an urgent, low tone of voice. Tony who was certain that he had won this test of wills, could only catch a few words — “passaporte”, “hotel”, “assinatura” were among the few he heard. After a minute or two, the chef concluded his consultation and returned his attention to Tony.
“Very well, sir, we will prepare the octopus for you. But because of the nature of this dish, and the reactions people sometimes have to it, we need you to sign a legal form, waiving all claims against the restaurant, in the event there are unusual side effects. This is the same as some restaurants in Japan which serve the Fugu blowfish, which I’m sure you know can contain a poison more powerful than cyanide if it is not prepared correctly.
“Eliana here will get the form for you, which I’m afraid is only in Portuguese, so you will have to take our word for what it says. And as an extra precaution, we would need to know where you are staying in the area, and also take a copy of your passport. Is all that acceptable?”
The chef hoped that the warning about the Fugu fish, and the legalities, would put Tony off, but it only made him more determined.
“Bring me the forms and then bring on my live octopus,” Tony said, puffing out his chest to show he was in charge here. The waitress and the chef shot him looks that could be interpreted as concerned, or perhaps pity, and walked away from the table – she towards an office to get the paperwork, he back to the kitchen.
“You know, Linda,” Tony said, grinning from ear to ear and pleased with himself. “I am probably the first American, maybe the first foreigner, to crack through the barriers they’ve put up to save this delicacy only for the locals. Now I can’t wait to try it.”
Linda looked glum. She’d thought to ask more about the possible side effects, why a disclaimer form was necessary, anything to find out what could happen, but Tony hadn’t let her get a word in edgewise.
His meal was staring at him
When the octopus was served, Tony was disconcerted to find that his meal was staring at him. The silvery cephalopod came to the table in an elegant crystal bowl. It was large enough to contain all of the tentacles, which wiggled around the circumference, but were trapped by a heavy ring of crystal that had a hole in the middle for the beak and eyes to protrude. The chef’s prep appeared to consist mostly of having made delicate but deep incisions in the tentacles, so that all Tony had to do was stick a fork into the outermost segment and it detached easily. Despite his display of bravura before the chef and the waitress, Tony had a secret squeamish streak. Now that the dish was in front of him, it took all his willpower to take the first bite. Linda, whose shrimp had been served to her a half hour before, while Tony was occupied with the paperwork and the chef prepared the octopus, shot him a look over her empty plate.
“You don’t have to do this,” she said. “You’ve proved your point, that you can get a restaurant to bend to your will. But you don’t have to eat that thing. We could pay and leave and go down the street for fish and chips.”
Tony scowled. He knew she was right, there was no reason to eat this poor, crippled creature, but having come this far he wanted to see it through. Besides, the octopus staring at him through its W-shaped slits of eyes was disconcerting. The faster he ate it, the sooner those lights would go out. Tony got a certain satisfaction from thinking he would soon have conquered this wonder of the seas, proving once again that man was the supreme predator.
Tony took a swig of the dark liqueur that was served with the octopus. The chef had said its aromatic, bitter flavour enhanced the taste, and also had a mildly psychotropic effect that made it easier to overcome any qualms and enjoy the dish to the fullest. Tony had started drinking it when it was served along with Linda’s shrimp and by now he was feeling no pain.
With his fork, he detached a first segment of wriggling tentacle and plopped it in his mouth. The sensation of the wormlike flesh moving about, even while his teeth were macerating it, was — he searched for the word — thrilling. He discovered that the octopus somehow had been infused with apricot and almond flavours, two of the prime ingredients of local cuisine in this part of Portugal. Those flavours, combined with the natural saltiness and delicacy of the octopus, combined for one of the best tastes Tony had ever had in his mouth.
“Linda, this is amazing. You really should try…” He stopped. The octopus was staring at him and its gaze seemed to be penetrating into some unknown, unexplored area of his brain. This is ridiculous, he thought, shaking off the notion. Octopus are among the most intelligent of sea creatures but they don’t exercise mind control. Tony tore another segment from the tentacle and popped it in his mouth. Show you, Mr or Mrs Octopus, who’s in charge here, he thought, meeting the octopus’s gaze head on.
“No, thanks, I won’t be having any,” Linda said, responding to the offer Tony hadn’t quite completed. She signaled to the waitress that she wanted a coffee. And on second thought, a brandy with that. This meal was going to take some time to finish.
Eating slowly, in part to savour the flavours but also to keep up his nerve, it took Tony the better part of an hour to finish his meal. He noticed that as he polished off the tentacles, one by one, the octopus ceased struggling to wriggle out of the bowl, where it was trapped by the heavy crystal ring, but the eyes followed his movements, and took every opportunity to catch his gaze. When that happened, Tony averted his eyes or turned his head. After all, it is not normal to have your meal stare at you. But sometimes, when the octopus made eye contact, he felt a shiver up and down his spine — a creature of one species communicating with another.
Maybe it was a trick of his mind, but at those moments when the contact took place, Tony had almost cinematic visions of places he knew he’d never been, places under the sea, dark grottoes where octopus were hiding, a shipwrecked fishing boat with fish swimming in and out of the hatchways, and an octopus slithering around the wheelhouse. At one point he thought he saw the dining room from the perspective of the octopus, a seafood selfie of a man in his 60s with tousled white hair, glasses and wielding a sharp-pronged fork and a cutting knife that were poised to strike the immobilised sea creature. A moment later, Tony stabbed the octopus with his knife right behind the eyeballs. The eyes remained blankly open, like those of a fish on a bed of ice, but the images stopped invading his brain.
“There, that wasn’t so bad,” Tony said, looking up from the detritus of his meal, with bits of tentacles and octopus flesh floating in the melted ice at the bottom of the crystal bowl. Linda, who’d had a second coffee and another brandy, waiting patiently for Tony to finish, reached over with her serviette and flicked a strand of tentacle from the side of Tony’s mouth. “You’ve eaten some gross stuff in your time, but that takes the cake,” she said. “Next time you order something like that, I’m going back to the hotel.”
Tony was stunned when the waitress brought the bill. Linda’s shrimps were 15 euros and everything else she’d had came to 40, but his octopus alone cost 250 euros. “This is crazy,” he started to fume to Linda, preparatory to making a scene. Then he realised he hadn’t a leg to stand on. The chef had warned him off the dish, told him it was a special order, and he’d signed something in Portuguese which more than likely said he waived all rights to complain about the meal, its consequences, or the price. He’d not been had, but he’d been fleeced.
As they prepared to leave, the chef strode out of the kitchen and stood with them for a moment at the door. The same taxi that had brought them to Santa Luzia was waiting to take them to their hotel.
“Take a long bath”
“I would suggest you relax this afternoon, maybe take a long bath, preferably in sea water, if your hotel can manage that — some of them here do,” the chef said, looking Tony up and down and lighting a cigarette. “The live octopus can take quite some time to digest, so it is best to lie in the water, even turn out the lights, and rest for a few hours.
“I hope you enjoyed your visit with us and I am sure we will be seeing you again,” the chef said, kissing Linda’s hand and shaking Tony’s, holding it a bit longer than would be normal, as if to gauge how stiff or supple Tony’s arm was. “‘Bom dia’ to both of you,” he added, flashing an enigmatic smile as he headed back to the kitchen.
On the way out of town, the taxi drove along the shore, where the ceramic pots used to catch octopus stood in rows, up and down the beach. Tony shuddered looking at them, realising that the cephalopod he’d consumed, and which was now inside him, had been wrenched from its habitat in one of these traps. He found himself squirming in the back seat of the taxi, moving this way and that, wondering which move he had to make to escape. Linda looked at him cooly.
“That food seems to have given you the jitters,” she said. “I think the chef had exactly the right idea when he suggested you take a long bath, and relax, with the lights out. We can also pour some salt in the water, like he suggested, and that might draw out some of the weird shit that’s now in your blood stream. While you do that, I’m gonna watch a movie and relax with a gin and tonic on the bed.”
Within a half hour, Tony was in his saltwater bath and he found that, exactly as the chef had said, it was more soothing with the lights out. Linda found something on the TV with Hugh Grant and sipped her G&T. She had another gin mini and Schweppes tonic lined up for when the first one ran out. She had no plans for doing anything or going anywhere for the rest of the night.
Tony did. It was probably about 3 a.m. when he slipped one of his tentacles over the rim of the bathtub and pulled the rest of his agile, supple body out of the tub and onto the floor. He slithered across the bathroom to a large drain whose cover he could see was not tightly fitted. With three of his eight tentacles he prised it off and within seconds he squeezed into the pipe and was heading home — to the sea. In his cephalopod brain he had a dim thought that he should beware of ceramic pots, but the warning washed away in his rush of happiness to be free.
— By Michael Roddy