“How will we barbecue fish on a boat?” was the obvious question. But we can deal with that later.
The prospect of a week sailing a yacht through the waters off the Turkish coast had brought six men, of varying sailing ability, together. The experienced skipper had assured us of all the usual – day long yellow sun, cooling breezes, warm deepest blue waters – and then tempted us with the further prospect of catching our own fish as we sailed. Well, could I resist? There is little better than eating fish so fresh that it was swimming around only minutes before being cooked. I recalled the fishing expeditions with my dad. Evening sessions on the beach in Hornsea or some other East Yorkshire resort. My job to find the wood and light the fire on which the first fish we caught would be cooked. One eye on the rod waiting for another unwilling victim, one on the frying pan where our supper lay cooking to perfection. Could we regenerate that passion, that atmosphere, that unforgettable smell on board our 40foot yacht?
Let’s take a look at those six willing victims volunteers.
The most experienced, our skipper – let’s call him Jon – had enough certificates of competence to be able to sail our 40 footer across the Atlantic let alone around the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean.
Next – calling him Geoff will protect the innocent – was an older version of that callow youth who accompanied his father around the coast when he was young. His childhood had been spent in and around boats of one sort or another, in on or near water. He had later learned to sail dinghies when his not inconsiderable bulk helped hold them in the water when less well-upholstered persons might have got blown over.
Wynn and Adrian, old greying friends, professed to being happier half way (or more) up a Himalayan peak and turned up with their Nepalese or Burmese T-shirts, Factor 50 (they knew all about the effects of the sun reflected off the snow, or sea), layers of technical clothing and ice-axes (OK, I lied about the ice-axes). They were up for anything and keen to learn.
Chris, the psycho (sorry, psychologist/counsellor/therapist) would undoubtedly have a key role in holding us all together when the going got tough.
And last but by no means least was Henry. Henry needed a change. He had recently retired from his long-held post at a prestigious university and was free, easy and available – although what prospect there was of romantic entanglement when we spent all day cooped up with five other red-blooded married blokes was hard to imagine.
So there we all were, enthusiastic yet largely unskilled. Willing to be led and educated by our brave skipper who proceeded to show us not only how to tie a bowline with one hand (try it yourself) but also the other delights he had brought with him. Carbon fibre rod, multiplier reel, lines, spinners and hooks galore. Yet apparently not quite the right lure for the huge great tuna, grouper, gilthead bream and other delights promised on turkishculture.org . A visit to the tackle shop beckoned.
Aladdin’s’ Cave would have looked tawdry compared to this place. Tempting the unwary fisherman in with garish offerings of soft rubbery lures, trapping him once inside with the prospect that any one of this cornucopia of delights could be just the one for that big fish and holding out the prospect of rewards unimaginable once it had been tied on to a bit of string and flung out the back of the boat. The walls covered with photographs of great fish and the even greater fishermen into whose firmament we could enter if only we bought the right tackle. “This one, Sir, will guarantee to seduce any local tuna onto your hook”, “How about this green and yellow imitation squid, or perhaps this with five different yet similar lures all on the same piece of wire?” (The wire being necessary for when the sharp teeth of the tuna bit into the lure and raised the angler’s heartbeat.) Fishermen find it hard to refuse these emblandishments and we walked out with the latter five-temptation setup, eager to get out on the water and catch our supper.
Fast forward – well, as fast as a Force 3 wind will allow – to mid-afternoon on Day1. All sails out, sailing as close to the wind as we can get, relaxing into an easy cruise to our dinner destination and out comes the fishing rod. “Time to catch dinner”. The little rubbery pseudo-squid dangle wobbly on the end of the metal trace as yards of line pay out behind the yacht. And then we wait, and wait, and wait… For today was not going to be our lucky day and dinner tonight was pasta and tinned tuna.
The next day followed the same pattern – we are going too slow, too fast, bouncing around too much. Not a nibble. Not even a change of tactic – replacing the by now infamous rubber squid with a garish spinner – tempted even a tiddler to bite. We knew that there were fish to be caught, every time we moored we found either a thriving fish market or some local restaurant’s fish tank packed with a range of treats that we could only dream about; the posters on the tackle shop window seemed to be advertising someone’s reality, just not ours.
By Day 5 we were beginning to wonder if we would ever catch our own supper. We had heard that the scent of women on the lure was more likely to attract the objects of our desire (fish, not women) but with six men on a boat that was out of the question. Perhaps Chris would come into his role, holding our psyches together amid an ocean of disbelief and hunger?
We moored that evening in a secluded bay with a rickety jetty and just one little restaurant. Drifting up to the landing we shouted out to ask if they could feed six of us and if they had any fresh fish. Encouraging nods and waves beckoned us over, by which time the one son who spoke broken English had been summoned. “We have fresh swordfish” sounded encouraging, so we settled down for a beer or two noting that the service was slow even by Turkish standards and wondering how come our Turkish guardian had time to phone his friends when he could be preparing our dinner. As we finished the starter of inevitable Hummus, Aubergines, Dolmades our friendly son – we never could understand his name – remarked “Fish here soon”. Good, that is what we were there for. A further beer arrived and then we heard the gentle and unmistakeable sound of a small outboard phut phutting in the bay; louder yet louder until it turned the headland and was clearly heading in our direction. It seemed like all of a sudden there was activity on a scale totally unanticipated; one son sent off to the shed to get something, another off to help the little fishing boat moor, yet another encouraging us to come and see.
Well, having a look at the boat mooring would pass the time, so off we went beers in hand. Big smiles all around and we were informed “Fish here”. The phone call had been to a local fisherman, who had promised to deliver fresh fish to fulfil our order. Not just Fresh fish, but fresh swordfish. Not just fresh swordfish, but three of the glistening silver and blue beauties. The smallest about 2 feet long, the biggest perhaps 5 feet from the crook of the splayed tail to the pointy tip of that fearsome sword. Eyes disproportionately large to help them see in the depths in which they hunted their own prey; bodies of pure muscle shaped to enable speed; a sword not used for spearing other less fortunate fish but to slash at supersonic speed through a shoal of prey stunning one or two who were to become the latest snack.
A large plastic sheet was hastily laid across one of the restaurant tables while help was sent to find the ancient weighing balance – you know the ones you see on the old photos, with a sliding weight on the top. But how to get these huge soon-to-be-dinners onto the vicious looking hook to weigh them? Another excursion to the shed revealed a length of rope with which the tails and heads of these slippery beasts were tied together. Two of the medium-sized sons held the pole on their shoulders and the weighing apparatus was hooked on. Slowly the fish were eased into balance and the fish eased into the air. We could not establish the total weight, but the more experienced amongst our crew reckoned on about 50kg in total. The fisherman had had a good day. An unknown amount of Turkish Lire exchanged hands and dinner was on!
And what a dinner. Can anything beat the taste of freshly caught fish barbecued on the wood from local vines and olives, basted in rough olive oil and herbs from the hillside only 50metres away? Potatoes sliced half a centimetre thick were cooked in oil with garlic, olives, onions and yet more herbs – soft and unctuous. A simple local salad of lettuce, tomatoes that had been on the plant less than half an hour ago, raw onions still warm from the earth they had rested in until very recently and yet more local olive oil.
THIS was gourmet eating and after all our disappointments we still ate barbecued fish, and never had to meet the challenge of how to do it on the boat.