Monday, August 24, 2009

Mutton Fish & Mutton Birds

When I first heard of Jacques Yves Cousteau I was about 9 years old.
I had already discovered mutton fish some years earlier.

I had learnt to prise them off their rocks at low tide with a long handled trident while leaning over the side of a wooden dinghy looking through a 5 gallon drum my father had glazed a glass bottom in for me.
There was no abalone industry then and when there was the divers were allowed to shell their fish on their boats. My pristine sea bed soon became littered with empty shells and the weed started to become muddy.
The prospect of going under the water to catch mutton fish excited me beyond belief.
When I was 10 my father bought me a second hand set of police search and rescue aqualungs and so began a hobby of scuba-diving that I pursued until a few years ago when I broke my ankle mountain climbing and could no longer push a flipper with ease.
I was always a food diver and abalone and crayfish were the prize.
The sight of red lobsters lurking at the back of a rock ledge just out of reach still haunts my dreams.
The joy of picking them up by hand while they marched across huge underwater boulders covered with short green sea grass that resembled pig face was beyond compare.
Crayfish were curried and mornayed and in summer were the centre-piece of salads.
No-one who came to our house by the sea in those days went away without a crayfish.
Abalone were sliced, pounded, crumbed and cooked quickly in butter and oil.
I have always cooked them that way, although in recent years I have used Panko breadcrumbs, the Japanese honey baked crumb and I have sometimes cooked them French style as whole ormers with a sauce made from the beards and trimmings reduced with white wine and cream and garlic.
It was common on long summer evenings for my family to have cray bakes and fish fries when the crumbed abalone would be served with home grown pink- eye potato chips and a lettuce and tomato salad dressed with and egg and mustard dressing.
Mutton birds were also a seasonal delicacy around Easter time as the Tasman Peninsula in those days had many rookeries which were open to non-indigenous Tasmanians to hunt and gather.
I well remember taking mutton birds on Wedge Island off Nubeena where in order to leave the island we would throw the bags of mutton birds into the water and jump in on top of them and swim to the waiting boat on the outward surge.
Mutton birds were plucked and skun on the rocks by the sea where conger eels would clean up the remains. The birds were cooked outside on the barbecue and so were the eels (smoked) if they were unlucky enough to come in to the shallows.
I still buy Yolla each year from a little place near Doctors Rocks on the North - West coast of Tasmania . These days I cook them in an old electric fry-pan at the end of a 20 metre extension cord at the top of Mary's lovely garden, or even better, to avoid any smell, I bake them in a floured and seasoned oven bag at 180C for about 30 minutes.
They are just wonderful consumed with a rye bread and washed down with Newcastle Brown Ale.

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