How to Clean a Conch -April 25, 2002
We just got back to George Town, the cruising hub of the Exuma island chain in the Bahamas. We had sailed 20 miles up the chain to Square Rock Cay for a week of peace and solitude. It was the sort of place where you didn't have to worry too much about wearing clothes and the surrounding reefs hadn't been picked clean by pillaging snorkellers. Lobster season is closed for the summer (see our April 4th log), so David decided to turn his attention to other underwater delicacies. Conch (pronounced "konk") is a mollusc that features prominently in Bahamian cuisine. The shallow banks south of our anchorage were perfect conch habitat: a nice mix of current swept sand and undersea grass.
There are several different kinds of conch found in tropical waters, but the gastropod of choice among gourmets in the Bahamas is the Queen Conch, also known as the Pink Conch. As the name suggests, the inside of the spiral shell is usually a deep pink colour. A fair sized one is around nine inches long. They reach full size when they're about 4 years old. After this, the lip of their shell begins to flare outwards and thicken. This is a sign of sexual maturity. Conch without a flared lip should be left happily alone.
In the right location, gathering conch isn't too difficult. They don't move very fast. The main challenge is distinguishing them from rocks on the sea bottom. In fifteen minutes, David picked up the same number of conch in one of the shallow passes near our anchorage. The far more difficult task (at least for those of us with limited practice) is cleaning them. Here are a few tips for the next time you happen to encounter a conch.
First, you have to find a suitable location to engage in what will be a very messy exercise. For years we thought our bow sprit was designed so that boatyards could charge us for an extra 6 feet of overall length. Then we discovered the bow sprit platform was the perfect place to clean conch. Pick a spot on your boat where you can pound away with minimal damage to gelcoat or paint, and where the resulting mess can be easily rinsed away afterwards.
Having decided upon a battle location, you must now convince the conch to leave its shell. David's favourite tools of persuasion are a pair of narrow nose vice grips, a hammer and cold chisel. Others who are more skilled wielding sharp instruments in the proximity of fingers and valuable boat parts use only a hatchet or scaling hammer.
Clamp the vice grips on to the horny cover at the end of the conch's foot (called its operculum). Then turn the shell over so that its opening faces down. From the tip, count the number of knobby ridges. Hammer a two inch slit across the shell between the third and fourth ridges. This is approximately where a tendon is attached to the inside of the shell. Slip a small sharp knife into the slit and sever the tender. If you did it right, the entire conch will slide out with a tug on the vice grips. If you did it wrong, the conch will be thoroughly ticked off and you'll probably have to resort to plastic explosives to dislodge it.
Now you have a slimy, ugly lump in your hands. Cut off the eye stalks, associated soft pendulous protuberances, and the orange mantle. Keep the operculum attached for something to grip while skinning the conch. Cut open and scrape clean the digestive tract that runs from the conch's snout to the centre of its body.
Some Bahamians tell us they don't skin their conch because they "like it with a bit of tooth". Their teeth are tougher than ours. To skin the conch, slice it lengthways with a sharp knife and pull aggressively. This is the part that takes us the longest. Finish by cutting off the operculum. A local will clean and skin a conch in less than a minute. On your first try, set aside about half an hour.
But it's not over yet. The piece of white meat before you has the consistency of a hockey puck. To tenderize, cut the meat lengthways into quarter inch thick slices and place them in a sturdy self-sealing plastic freezer bag with a splash of vinegar. You can use any of a variety of heavy, blunt implements to pound the bag and its contents into submission. We prefer a stout rolling pin, showing no mercy. The plastic bag prevents excessive splattering of mashed conch meat.
For a quick conch dish, moisten the tenderized slices in lime juice and dip in flour. Quickly fry over medium heat in lots of oil. That's all there is to preparing "cracked conch". Enjoy. You've earned it.
Cheers, David & Eileen