Calamari safari

Everybody knows what calamari is but few have sane ideas about how to deal with these elongated, fast-swimming cephalopod molluscs with 10 arms. Wait, I exaggerate: eight arms plus two longer tentacles.

Is it meant to be eaten raw or fried? With a sauce or without? Do squid experience pain as octopuses do?

Passionate foodie Kerneels Breytenbach considers what makes the perfect appetiser.

With so many pertinent questions, it could have been predicted that the Yanks would promote squid to the realms of fantasy in order to evade an answer. A case in point is how the TV channel HBO used squid as a wayward form of entertainment. As a lover of calamari, I was quite astounded by the series Watchmen, in which New York is saved from nuclear annihilation by a mad scientist, Ozymandias, who showers the city with a deluge of squid. As far-fetched as this may seem, it was a vast improvement on movies like It Came from Beneath the Sea and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, where giant killer squid make for really bad vibes.

On the whole, people just don’t know how to successfully transform squid into calamari, those tasty morsels that feature in the appetiser section of so many restaurant menus. Rick Stein, the eminent British restaurateur who rose to fame in the 1990s as a TV celebrity chef, says the quality of a restaurant can be judged by its calamari.

“If the chef gets this right,” says Stein, “you can usually be sure that everything that comes after will be good, too.”

But only the best chefs get it right, right?

I would like to restore the dignity of squid and show how local restaurateurs have developed the preparation of calamari to a fine art. To do this, some friends and I sat down at Decameron to judge a number of top Stellenbosch restaurants’ calamari, knowing that calamari could be served in various ways and that each of those ways would enable us to distinguish between good and pedestrian chefs.

De Warenmarkt’s delicious grilled calamari.

Well-prepared calamari can be gastronomically exquisite. In bumbling hands, it becomes tasteless and rubbery, quite inedible.

The spindle-shaped body, or mantle, is ideal for stuffing. In South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, deep-fried calamari is commonly served with fish and chips but in the USA calamari rings served with garlic butter and parsley or accompanied by mayonnaise-based dips or tzatziki have become more popular. This method is now copied worldwide and calamari prepared thus often appears as an appetiser on restaurant menus. In Mexico, obviously, it is served with a chilli sauce as accompaniment.

Calamari rings and tentacles are often used in Eastern stir-fries. In some cultures, it is commonplace to cook them in a white wine sauce, or serve them cold in a salad, with a dressing according to taste.

One of the most popular ways of preparing calamari is the Mediterranean way: batter-coated and deep-fried for less than two minutes. The consistency of the batter – thin or thick – usually has quite some bearing on the overall taste. Many chefs guard their batter recipes with their lives; most will also rather pan-fry than deep-fry, probably out of respect for the punters’ health.

Judging by the entries in our Calamari Safari, none of the chefs was prepared to go the Japanese route (raw). Instead, they stuck to grilling and frying, mostly pan-frying the calamari in oil after dipping the cut rings or the whole mantle in a very light batter, or sometimes skipping the batter altogether. 

It soon was evident that some of Stellenbosch’s finest chefs relied on garnishing and accompaniments to gain advantage. Some chose chorizo, a tasty option, but its smoky spicy flavour was so overwhelming that our taste buds barely registered the calamari. 

We kept in mind that calamari is commonly served as an appe­tiser or first course. It is intended to set things in motion, to prepare the mouth for the main course, to make you curious about the chef’s approach to food and to get the gastric juices flowing. Chorizo bedevilled this approach.

Decameron’s winning calamari trio.

Calamari does not have a pronounced taste but combined with lemon, garlic, parsley, olive oil or butter, it can stimulate intense pleasure. The real skill, however, lies in not overwhelming the hero.

And that is exactly what the Calamari Safari brought. Little treasures of taste sensation prepared by chefs who knew the odds and bet on the brief shining moment. Each showed a unique style, so we encountered no real duplication. There was no rubbery calamari, and there were some quite remarkable taste enhancements. 

The restaurants’ combined approach was essentially Mediterranean, with some signs of an Eastern sensibility but luckily no squid ink in evidence. One must accept that fresh calamari is in short supply, which explains the scarcity of tentacles in the presentations. I enjoyed some of the mantle entries more than the rings or strips but tastes differ.

We had no clue what the provenance of each entry was and could judge only by what we were served. There was a clear winner when the scores were tallied although overall it was a close-run competition. All the entrants proved that gastronomic ecstasy is alive and well in Stellenbosch as far as calamari is concerned. And in the broader sense, if you adhere to Rick Stein’s dictum, the Calamari Safari gave notice that there is an abundance of quality among Stellenbosch’s eateries.

And the winners are:

1. Decameron

2. Stellenbosch Kitchen

3. De Warenmarkt

Heirs to the Mateus throne

Seafood, especially calamari and prawns, evokes memories of Mateus Rosé and Graça wines, both of which had distinctive bottles: the former almost round and the latter a largish dumpy. At one stage the largest selling wine in the world, the Portuguese Mateus was fun and very drinkable. Alas, neither of these wines are readily available on local wine lists these days.

The standard setting Wilson Foreigner Rorick Vineyard Albarino Sierra Foothills 2015.

Our host made up for this with a wide variety of quaffable wines. The Kleine Zalze 2019 Chenin Blanc, Vineyard Selection, was a fresh and pleasant starter. Then the foreigners: the Californian Albarino Rorick Vineyard, Sierra Foothills 2015 set a standard to be followed, while the Bandol 2017 Domaine Templer (Rosé) more than made up for the much-missed Mateus. 

Returning to the locals, we continued with the highly regarded Secateurs 2019 Chenin Blanc and finished off (by now we were onto our 10th and final dish) with a beautiful 2017 Hartenberg Riesling.

As always, the Decameron service was excellent. And, for the record, byo is R40 per bottle. – Chris Otto