“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”
“Ardilla”, I squeaked, citing from my tiny German-Spanish dictionary.
“Eres una ardilla!”
“What did you say?” my friend asked.
“I told him he’s a squirrel.”
We giggled, but that very moment the boys were called to the car by their parents.
The taller one turned around, waving, as they walked into the darkness of the parking lot.
“We have to learn Spanish, so we can talk to them fluently next year”, my friend and I agreed.
I looked at the stars in the sky, twinkling like millions of fairy lights.
Spain had been his destination of choice in the summer for as long as I can think back.
Dad was at home in southern Europe. He loved the flair, the heat, the endless summer nights.
One year we rented a house close to the holiday home of a befriended family. They had a daughter called Nora, too.
We were friends and we were not, in the way two little girls who both have no siblings are in rivalry whenever a tricky situation arises.
I had mint green pyjamas, the short sleeved top picturing Dalmatians, the shorts covered in yellow and purple hearts.
It had been given to me by my grandma, in Cyprus, where I had spent a week with her and my mother, other travellers mistaking mama and me for sisters.
This holiday in Spain is a whirlwind of memories and emotions to me now, twenty years later.
My friend and I playing. Fighting. Her hiding in my room, me convinced she was cutting up my beloved teddy bear, when instead she was killing my anger with kindness, neatly folding my coveted pyjamas underneath my pillow.
I remember the small cups of flan, caramel, vanilla or chocolate for the kids, bitter-sweet chocolate or mocha for the adults. I once accidentally tasted a mocha one, as the brown color of the cups was nearly identical to the chocolate one. They were sweet, with a soft consistency, and a taste I have not been able to find again ever since.
We went out at night, to seafood restaurants, my parents talking me into eating mussles and langoustines, me pretending to not enjoy them because that’s what my friend did, too.
Then we’d jump up, run outside, play under the moon and stars until the last drop of red wine had been drunk and the cicadas were singing our lullabies.
It was on such a night that we met the two Spanish boys playing outside. I had snatched the small yellow dictionary from my dad’s pocket, the one he used to make him feel clever, to help him pretend to be a local, for it was all he dreamed of.
We played, we teased. And with my dad’s book in hand, I was slipping into his shoes, throwing around Spanish words, no sign of my usual shyness or fear of wrongdoing.
“Next year. See you next year.” we said, as they were walking back to their parents, into the car, the red headlights finally vanishing into the dark night.
The remainder of this summer vacation is hazy in my mind. I learned to swim in the pool. I watched teenagers kissing in the wavy sea, wondering if kissing was as enjoyable as they made it seem, or if it was not a little gross to exchange that much saliva.
I remember dad, in yet another attempt of vanity, applying tanning oil instead of sunscreen. My parents laughing about the British kids covered in a thick layer of the white slick. Endless walks on the beach with my father, hunting the ice cream truck. Eating battered Calamari and fries at the diner for lunch, amidst the oily smell of deep frying, sunscreen and sweaty people.
A magical blur of memories, images of sandy beaches, of afternoon naps and pink Bougainvillea leaves bowing over the entryways.
It was the second to last with Papa, before there never was to be a next year with him ever again. I cherish our happy memories, for do not be mistaken, there are many unhappy ones, too.
But I’ll leave my memories of my childhood summer untainted, remembering the laughs, the good, the inevitable involvement of seafood in one way or another – as it will always be synonymous with beach vacations to me.
It is only fitting for me to write about this as I’m sitting in the sweltering heat of Croatia, a bedroom window overlooking the Adriatic Sea, learning to gut fish and eating seafood by the pound.
It is a summer vacation with Dad, but it is now “dad” to my girls and “husband” to me. A new next year, if you will.
This recipe was inspired by my Croatian mother in law, who makes a mean octopus salad with plenty of chopped onion and parsley, though it isn’t the most photogenic.
My version is leafy, filled with the flavours of flat leaf parsley, Thai basil and mint.
Octopus is a very collagenous protein, too gummy if one doesn’t break up these structures.
One old fashioned way of doing this is freezing it, for the tale is that the ice crystals forming destroy at least some of the collagen.
A more modern way is pressure cooking the octopus, as the high heat under 15psi is ideal to yield tender flesh.
I did both for this salad, ensuring tentacles one can actually chew, yet retaining some bite.
Filleted orange and the zest of the same add a nice twist of color to this salad, the red onion a certain sharpness to offset the mellow taste of the octopus.
You’ll notice there’s no dressing for this, as it is customary in many southern European places to serve salads with nothing but local olive oil, vinegar and salt on the side.
I strongly suggest sticking to this tradition and I promise you won’t regret following my advice. Make sure to use a sharp oil, a young one at best, and a coarse sea salt for some extra flavor and texture.
It is a salad best served at room temperature, the octopus still lukewarm from the cooker, ideal as a light summer lunch for two or a Mediterranean-inspired dinner party appetizer for four.
It is certainly not a dish reserved for adults only though, as my three year old daughter was incredibly excited about eating octopus.
I’m sure she’d love deep-fried calamari just as much as her mother did back in the day, but I’ll happily feed her this fresh octopus salad until she’ll fall victim to peer pressure, – which she’ll inevitably will – in the same way my parents encouraged me to try clams I secretly liked, but never cared to admit in fear of losing an ally in my little friend.
to cook the octopi:
- 2 octopi, each around 1 pound
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 long pepper, alternatively 5 black peppercorns
- 3 juniper berries
- 2 bay leaves
for the salad:
- 2.5 cups flat leaf parsley, leaves only
- 1/2 cup Thai basil leaves
- 1/4 cup mint leaves
- 1 orange, zest ribboned, flesh filleted
- 1 red onion, cut into narrow wedges
- olive oil, white balsamic vinegar, flaky sea salt + pepper, to serve
- Place all ingredients for the octopus in a pressure cooker and cook at a gauge pressure of 15psi for 15 minutes (start timing once the cooker reaches full pressure). If you're using an electric pressure cooker (such as an instant pot), it will cook at 12psi and you'll need to cook it for 18 minutes instead.
- Depressurize under running tap water. If the octopus is still too gummy, close the pot again and bring it back up to pressure, cooking for another 3-4 minutes. Remove it from the cooking water and allow it to cool until you can easily touch it.
- Cut the long and curly tentacles off the octopus, cut the remaining flesh into chunks.
- Arrange all salad ingredients on a platter or plates and serve with olive oil, vinegar, sea salt and pepper on the side.