Posted by: adventuressetravels | April 26, 2011

Conched Out

Conchs so easy to find, and not just easy to find.  They are just hanging out on the warm shallow waters of the Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean.  And not just easy to find, they’re easy to catch too!  After all, they’re sea snails.  How fast do snails move?  I’d been hearing it for months.  I’d even downloaded conch recipes after the captain had asked.  According to him if we didn’t have ideas in how to prepare them we’d get sick of conch we’d be eating so many.

the Carnivorous Whelk

I’d tried conch fritters in Jamaica years earlier, where I learned the word was actually pronounced konk, with a silent “ch.” Now I was ready to try my hand at cooking them myself Months and we still hadn’t seen so much as the first conch.  I couldn’t believe it!  I had been assured these waters were filled with conch.  I wanted to try conch salad, curried conch, coconut conch, and all the other recipes the captain had insisted I find.

We had seen huge cairns of conch shells piled on Bahamian beaches, tributes to the thousands of conchs who had lost their lives to feed the islanders.  They were clearly there for some reason we simply weren’t finding them.

After many months I went out on the back deck and to my surprise and delight an enormous exquisitely patterned shell was in the captain’s hands.  “I found you a conch,” he told me.

But that wasn’t a conch, I protested.  Conchs were pink and this shell was a delicately patterned brown.  Upon closer examination Tony determined the mollusk to be a carnivorous whelk.  It wasn’t a conch, but it was a start.  This was clearly a good place to dive for sea snails.

After many dives and hours of snorkeling, marveling at the beauty of the underwater kingdom I found one good-sized conch and a plethora of littler ones.  The captain threw the small ones back and we put the large one in a bucket of salt water.  We had more than enough for our ceviche with his carnivorous whelk.

It pained me to watch the captain bash the end of the whelk’s beautiful shell, but he wasn’t experienced enough to drill holes in the top.  From what the captain said you just knocked the top off and the conch slid right out but the drilling technique required skill.

Contrary to the captain’s theories, the whelk did not merely “slide right out.”  Oh it oozed a little further out of its damaged shell, but it didn’t come far out before retreating into its home.  The whelk wasn’t going anywhere.  I didn’t watch what the captain did to the shell to finally rip the poor creature from its shell but in the end the captain did triumph and a large lump of flesh coated in clear viscous mucus lay on the deck.

Though I did feel bad for the creature, I was quite curious to finally sample a piece of carnivorous whelk.  The captain sliced his kill up and deposited it into the large bowl of lime juice cilantro, and salt to cook in the citric acid.  24 hours later the flesh had transformed from the milky translucent white to an opaque white.  It was cooked.

Eagerly I scooped a little hunk onto a cracker and took a bite of this much sought-after sea creature.  I chewed … and chewed …. and chewed.  Boot leather would have been more tender.

After nearly 5 minutes of mastication not getting me anywhere with the whelk I spat the bite overboard and tossed my conch overboard afterword.  I later found out that mollusks needed to be tenderized, pulverized really, before they achieved a consistency anywhere near edible.  I would leave cooking mollusks to the professionals.

But why hadn’t we found conchs earlier in our trip, I wondered. When Tony’s girlfriend joined the crew, I found out why.  Overfishing, people have hunted these easy-to-catch mollusks for their meat and beautiful shells to the point that they are an endangered species. The beautiful shells are banned for export in many countries.  Even in the Bahamas it is illegal to harvest them before they reach a certain size.   In Florida it is illegal to take one – the Conch Republic of Key West is literally conched out.

After hearing that I was happy we never managed to kill any genuine conchs.  Eating endangered species is not on my to do list.

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Responses

  1. I learned a lot from this.


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