Blessed with sunshine and moderate daily rains, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Caribbean is a bounty of fresh local food. With a few exceptions the reality is actually quite the opposite: most everything needs to be imported. You see, there is one significant piece missing from the puzzle across most of the islands and that is arable land. The vast majority of them are essentially giant sandbars. And what little earth exists underfoot is contaminated by salt and brackish water. Ergo, no fresh fruit; no fresh vegetables. What little is able to be produced locally is grown hydroponically in very small batches. (tiny Anguilla – to its enormous credit – has a massive organic hydroponic farm that supplies a handful of resorts as well as the local community)
What’s a yuppie on holiday supposed to do? In Turks & Caicos the answer is conch. Endangered in over 95% of its natural habitat, conch strangely flourishes here.
Da Conch Shack in Blue Hills is a Turks institution and as you might guess, conch is the specialty: cracked conch, conch fritters, creole conch, stir-fry conch, conch salad, curry conch, conch gumbo, conch chowder – the hardy creature is incredibly adaptable as a meat substitute. Technically, it’s a giant sea snail, so I’m surprised to not see it served in the French-style, with lots of garlic and butter – but then again, perhaps that cooking method doesn’t really lend itself to the warmer climes.
The Shack goes through upwards of a few thousand conch a week. Held offshore in giant pens, they are killed – or conched, if you will – to order. If you’ve time, head to the beach after lunch and manager Peter or one of his staff will show you how it’s done. Essentially they stab it in the head to sever the connective ligament that attaches the snail to its shell, before yanking it out and cutting off the attached claw foot, eyes, and digestive system. The tough outer skin is then peeled away, leaving a filet of white meat.
One interesting side note to today’s conch excursion was the chance to try a local delicacy: conch penis. That’s right, today I ate my first ever animal penis. (Prized as an aphrodisiac, it’s really a shame I’m down here solo.) About three inches long, with the approximate thickness of angel hair pasta, it didn’t really taste of anything besides salt. As for texture I’d liken it to a gummy worm. How’s that for thinking globally and eating locally?