"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."
George Orwell (1946)
May has for some years been one of my favourite months in the culinary calender. It has typically marked the intersection of the beginning of the cuttlefish season with the end of the wild garlic season, and cuttlefish and wild garlic are a marriage made in heaven. However (and as I mentioned in Baked Brill on the Bone with Cockles and Wild Garlic), owing to a particularly mild winter, the wild garlic was out especially early this year and I was a little concerned that this might mean its tenure would run its course before the cuttlefish put in their first appearances. Not so. Evidently the cuttlefish have responded to the warmer temperatures and also come early. It was a pleasure to see Dock on the stall this weekend and I asked him what his thoughts were behind the early appearance of the cuttlefish, as well as untimely appearances of other species. His response was to the effect of saying that whatever notes you took about the seasonality of the catch a few years ago, throw them away. Such would appear to be the effect of the changing of the climate.
Devising this recipe was driven by a desire to capture the flavours of a collection of dishes frequently encountered in Spain, where cuttlefish or squid is paired with what the Spanish call ajos tiernos, literally ”tender garlic”. These dishes are either created by searing the ingredients “a la plancha” (on a griddle), or by briefly braising them in a little vinegar or white wine. Sadly, the cuttlefish and squid used in these dishes is very often tiny in size, delicious without doubt, but raising serious questions about sustainable fishing practices.
The closest to ajos tiernos I have ever come across in the UK is what we call “wet garlic”, i.e. garlic harvested young and not put through the drying process that results in the garlic we commonly use. I am contacting The Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight, specialists in all things garlicky, to see what their horticultural interpretation of ajos tiernos is and what their view is on the prospects of a market for it in the UK. I would buy a lot, and so would my father, but I think we’d need more protagonists than us two to get this one going.
Both ajos tiernos and wet garlic have the characteristics of having a mild, sweet garlic flavour that means they can be used raw or cooked very briefly in larger quantities than could be regular garlic. This is what gives the flavour to the Spanish dishes that I have been keen to reproduce. Although it has for a while been my intention to develop a recipe that achieves this goal, I hadn’t expected to be doing it in March rather than May.
It should be said, however, that this is barely a recipe – it is hardly more than some cuttlefish seared on a very hot surface with some wilted wild garlic and very good olive oil. But like so many of the best dishes, simplicity is anything but a barrier to success.
You could use squid in place of the cuttlefish for this recipe, adjusting the cooking time accordingly. But, however erratic the seasons of late, I can't see squid appearing on the market stall at the same time as wild garlic is appearing in the hedgerows. It's cuttlefish and wild garlic season now, grab them while you can!
There isn't much call for quantities here as this is almost an arrangement rather than a recipe. However, I've given quantities as a guide. Roughly speaking a whole cuttlefish of around 1.25kg will yield approximately 500g of usable flesh including wings, legs and tentacles. As this is a very quick-cooked cuttlefish dish you do not want to use the wings here - these are best reserved for slow-cooked dishes. However, whether or not you use the legs and tentacles is up to you but, in this case I have only used the meat from the body. One thing that is vitally important given the speed of cooking is to ensure the cuttlefish is at room temperature before it is cooked.
The timing of the cooking will vary according to the thickness of the cuttlefish flesh (the timing I have given here is for the meat that came from a 1.25kg beast). The result you are aiming for is not dissimilar to that of al-dente pasta: not quite melt-in-the-mouth, but soft nonetheless. Toothsome you might say.
The key to this dish is fresh, top-quality ingredients. I have an olive oil from Spain that I reserve for recipes such as this, it being a prominent flavour in the final dish. And a word of warning if I may: do wash your wild garlic well - bugs love hiding in it.
Serve as starter or as part of a tapas spread.
Cuttlefish "a la Plancha" with Wild Garlic
Ingredients (Serves 2 as a starter or 4 as part of a "tapas" spread)
150g cuttlefish, from the body, cut into pieces about 20cm x 8cm
75g wild garlic, stalks removed (or 50g with stalks, cut into 1½" lengths) washed well
Best quality extra virgin olive oil, ideally Spanish
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
Heat a ridged grill pan or heavy bottomed frying pan until very very hot.
Coat the cuttlefish pieces with a very thin film of olive oil and season with the coarse sea salt. Place on the pan and sear for approx 2 mins per side, depending on the thickness. If they curl, press them down with a spatula.
Transfer the cuttlefish pieces to a chopping board, cut them into ½"-wide strips and put them in a bowl. Cut the wild garlic on the diagonal into 1"-wide strips and add these to the bowl. Season with a little salt and pepper and add a glug of extra virgin olive oil. Stir everything well, cover the bowl with cling film and leave for 3 or 4 minutes to allow the wild garlic to wilt and its flavour to infuse.
Remove the cling film, check the seasoning and adjust to taste. Add a little more olive oil if desired, then sprinkle in the chopped parsley. Toss everything together and serve.