~Cracked Conch and Conch Fritters served at Da Conch Shack~
It is like a scene out of Alien, as a slimy mass, all tentacles and eyeballs, extrudes and extends from the hole above. I am not on a movie set or a bad dream, though, but at the Conch Farm in Provodinciales, Turks and Caicos. This is my first live encounter with conch, although I have been eating it served up in every creative way imaginable since I have been in the islands. Before landing in Provo (as the locals call it) conch was just a pretty shell with a pearly pink interior that you could hold up to your ear to hear the ocean. In the Turks and Caicos, though, it is impossible to encounter the conch without seeing it for its true intention-FOOD!
In the 1800’s conch was the main source of food for the islanders due to its overabundance and easy access. Shallow water flats that connect the islands from the Turks and Caicos to the Florida Keys make this an ideal breeding and fishing ground for the conch. Opportunistic overfishing has forced a moratorium on conch in the Florida Keys, but conch is still king in the Turks and Caicos.
Conch Farms in the Turks and Caicos
The abundance of conch still available in TCI is due, in large part, to only conch farm in the world located on the eastern tip of Provo. Tours are available at the farm for $12 per adult and $8 per child, and with the amount of conch that is sure to be consumed while visiting TCI, it seems like an honorary stop to pay homage to the conch from its beginnings.
A series of buildings and circular pens resembling a hybrid of a greenhouse and a water treatment plant are located on a prime piece of Provo real estate and make up the farm. Tours begin in a small room off of the open air gift shop where guides use diagrams and photographs to introduce the life cycle of the conch. Conch hatch from an entangled ball of stringy eggs that settle on the bottom of the ocean-or tank, in this case-where they feed on algae until they are large enough to free float.
~Greenhouse holding baby conch of various sizes~
At the tender age of two months, conch are about the size of a piece of gravel, but they already sport the recognizable spiral shell. At the farm, conch progress through the greenhouse maze, moving into larger and larger enclosures as they grow. Algae continues to be a main source of food, but recycled hops from the Turk Head Beer microbrewery are also added to their tender diet.
~Offshore Conch Pens~
The conch eventually outgrow the smaller pens in the shelter of the greenhouse and graduate into the circular pens that stretch for a ¼ mile out into the ocean. Here they are protected from predators until the age of four when they reach full size and are imported to restaurants and retailers in the US.
~Jerry, the Conch at the Conch Farm in Provo~
Overlooking the network of pens is the site of my alien encounter, a male conch named Jerry who serves as a conch ambassador along with his ‘friends with benefits’, a female conch named Sally. The two are unceremoniously plucked from the tank, and on command, they stretch and strut, allowing us an in-depth education into the anatomy of a conch. The pair is well trained and they seem to enjoy the ogling. It’s obvious to everyone, especially Jerry and Sally, that a command performance is their ticket to stay in the tank and off the table.
~The entrance to Da Conch Shack~
Da Conch Shack
You would be hard pressed to find a restaurant on the island that doesn’t serve some form of conch, but to really catch the flavor and culture of conch; Da Conch Shack is the place. Traveling west along Leeward Highway, the landscape fades from neatly manicured resort properties to brightly colored homes and local bars. An abrupt switch from pavement to gravel signals that this is a local hangout, although plenty of tourists are arriving in taxis with clouds of dust trailing behind. Da Conch Shack welcomes everyone.
~The paradise of known as Da Conch Shack~
Picnic tables are scattered under the generous shade of the palm trees and are surrounded by three shacks-a bar, a restaurant, and a bathroom. Menus are distributed, but everyone knows coming in what they will order. You just have to decide how you want it prepared. Anyone who doesn’t care for conch should pack a PBJ. Not much else is served here. Our group orders a sampling of the conch smorgasbord, including conch chowder, cracked conch, conch cerviche, and conch fritters. Just in case of conch overload, we also order blackened fish tacos, which are the table favorite. That’s no reflection on the conch, though. All of it is delicious in a unique way, and I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite.
A Quick and Yummy Guide to the Conch Dishes of the Turks and Caicos
From a cursory glance at any menu in TCI, you will see that there are as many ways to prepare conch as there are people to eat them. You couldn’t claim the proverbial “tastes like chicken” mantra for this dish, though. The uniqueness quality has as much to do with the texture than anything. It is firmer than shrimp, but smoother than lobster. It approaches the consistency of calamari, but definitely lacks any rubbery quality. It has a distinct seafood flavor, but definitely isn’t fishy. You might simply have to say that it “tastes like conch.”
~Conch Cerviche at Seaside Grill: Ocean Club Resorts~
Conch Cerviche is the purest (and healthiest) form of conch and the best way to get the flavor of the dish. Thin slices are served raw with diced peppers, onions, cilantro and lime or other citrus juices, creating a refreshing recipe that is perfect for a hot tropical day. Conch Cerviche is dish that invites chefs to unleash a certain amount of creative license. The cerviche at each restaurant on the island is slightly different, with some restaurants even offering a cerviche sampler for a variety of tastes. To taste one cerviche is definitely not sufficient to find your favorite.
To kick it up a notch, chopped pieces of conch are mixed with cornmeal and spices that are rolled into a ball and deep fried to make conch fritters. Much like hushpuppies with little nuggets of conch goodness inside, this recipe is also varied from restaurant to restaurant.
Keeping with the fried theme, cracked conch is a relatively simple dish that takes thicker pieces of conch and rolls them in fried breading. Unlike the cerviche and fritters, cracked conch seemed to be the same no matter where I tried it.
Conch can and will be added to just about any recipe available in the island. Chowders, spring rolls, and salads all boast a little burst of conch. I fully expected to find conch ice cream or conch pastries in the local bakeries, but a thorough search produced no conch inspired desserts. I guess a line must be drawn somewhere.
The Freshest Conch on the Island is an Aphrodisiac
Stuffed to delicious misery at Da Conch Shack with my toes digging lazy holes in the sand, an interloper on the beach catches the corner of my eye. An islander is muscling a large wheelbarrow that seems as if it has lost its way from a high-rise construction site. It is certainly out of place on the sugar sand and sparkling turquoise water, but as I curiosity pulls me closer, I understand the purpose. The inside of the wheelbarrow holds the catch of the day, a reminder that the fried goodness I had enjoyed moments before had not traveled far to get to my plate.
~Cast off shells will be cleaned as souvenirs~
I am not the only one to notice the catch. Groups of tourists begin to congregate around a wooden cable spool that has been turned on end to serve as a make shift table on the beach. Apparently, a visit to Da Conch Shack is dinner and a show. The fisherman works the crowd and launches into a schtick that seems to be just as big a draw as the food itself.
~An almost surgical procedure on the beach~
With two sturdy taps of hammer on the end of a screwdriver, the fisherman knocks a hole in the crown of the conch. With the precision of a surgeon, he inserts a fillet knife into the hole and loosens the conch from the shell with almost imperceptible speed.
~A first glance of lunch (or dinner)~
That’s when the show really begins. The ladies of the group are asked to reach inside and extrude the large white-pink creature from the shell. Most of the ladies hold it at a safe and squeamish distance, which allows the fisherman to reach into the mass and pluck off a 3 inch, tube shaped organ. With a wink and nudge that is heavily laced with innuendo, this jelly-textured gummy worm from the sea is offered to the men of the group.
~Provo Viagra: an aphrodisiac from the sea~
If anyone resists or questions-and plenty do-the innuendo is amped up with a virility challenge. “This is Provo Viagra,” the cheerful fisherman interjects. Not one man refuses after a gauntlet of that seriousness is thrown down. They all knock back the wiggly string like they are eating a goldfish, assuming that they are eating the unspeakable part of the conch. Many of them make a manly show of strength, as if they already feel conch power flowing through their veins. I wonder if they would feel differently if they knew that they had just eaten the spinal column of the conch?
~Fresh conch headed towards the kitchen of Da Conch Shack~
Whatever the body part, I watch the freshly cracked conch being carried off to the kitchen, and decide that for me, I will stick to the conch that properly prepared and neatly placed on a plate.