A few years ago we went with our friends the Seatons on a deeply compromised holiday to a lovely part of south-west Ireland, the Beara Peninsula. The Guinness was good, the countryside luscious, the fiddle-playing frisky – Ireland is, after all, Ireland; but there were drawbacks. Swimming was out of the question as the sea was teeming with jellyfish; we pottered about in a knackered old rowing boat, anxious about the admittedly remote possibility of capsizing. Going for walks was a nightmare, as we were attacked by tics; pulling them out afterwards was companionable but intensely painful, the potential consequences of missing just one of the little beasts alarming. Sitting outside in the evenings was out of the question, since, despite having the use of an ingenious anti-mosquito machine, we were bitten black and blue by the damn things. The natural world was not going to take our holiday-making lying down. We wouldn’t have been particularly surprised if it had rained frogs.
The jellyfish were, of course, spectacularly beautiful. In a world where most objects are opaque, there is something fascinating about a partially transparent object – a soap bubble, a birdcage, an aquarium, a crane, the London Eye. The structure is on display, and one can appreciate the complexity of it. At the same time, the world behind looks almost to be an intrinsic part of the object, so there is a certain mystery. Staring at one of these gorgeous, disturbing creatures beneath our boat, it was impossible not to wonder: does it have a brain? does it have control of its motion? what’s it for??
My next encounter with jellyfish was at the National Theatre. I was invited by my friends Ant and Clare to a largely forgettable version of Carl Zuckmayer’s play The Captain Of Köpenik, and, more memorably, met their delightful friend Gill Mapstone, one of only two British jellyfish academics. She is making a study of siphonophores, or string jellyfish, an order which includes the highly dangerous species Portugese Man O’War. A siphonophore appears to be a single organism, but is actually a colony composed of many individuals which are themselves incapable of independent life. By a bizarre coincidence the other BJA is also studying siphonophores, and he and Gill are locked in a permanent Cold War. He has a tedious habit of accusing her of stealing his research. Relations are frosty. So much for academic cooperation.
In the course of making an event in Sandnes, Norway – a feast with choral music, based on the writings of the wonderful Norwegian cook Hulda Garborg - I was inspired to write a daft song called How To Cook A Jellyfish. The song turned out to be not so daft, as it seems jellyfish are cooked in many parts of Asia already. Which may be the way forward for all of us, in the light of an alarming, not to say apocalyptic book by Lisa-ann Gershwin, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean.
Gershwin paints a picture of jellyfish as a super-race. Carried round the world when water is taken onto oil tankers as ballast, some species are capable of chasing (yes, chasing) and devouring vast quantities of fish. The Black Sea, for example, is now almost emptied of anchovies and sturgeon; it’s a kingdom of jelly. In contrast to our single fraught method of reproduction, jellyfish have at their disposal hermaphroditism, cloning, external fertilization, self-fertilisation, courtship and copulation, fission, fusion, cannibalism… Cut a jellyfish in four, and each quarter can grow into a functioning creature. A jellyfish deprived temporarily of food can degrow, that is, become smaller, all its organs remaining in proportion, and then regrow when food becomes available. Predators such as sea turtles are being destroyed by marine detritus, whereas for the jellyfish themselves this environment is a nursery. The warming of the oceans, the acidification, the depletion of oxygen? You’ve guessed it - jellyfish thrive in these conditions. According to Gershwin, the likelihood is that the oceans, already depleted of fish by over-fishing and adverse conditions, will eventually be taken over by jellyfish.
With this vision of the future in mind, let’s cook. There are at least fifteen species of edible jellyfish. In taste and texture they are apparently not unlike bubble-wrap, but there are mitigating medicinal properties. I quote from my song:
First catch your jellyfish
Salt it for ten days
Soak it in water
Chop off its tentacles
Cut it in slices
Don’t get stung
Coffee and vinegar
Ginger and licorice
Mix up the marinade
Put in the jellyfish
Leave it for six hours
Don’t get stung
Wrap it in lizard skin
Fry it in snake oil
Garnish with butterflies
Serve up your jellyfish
Eat it with chopsticks
Don’t get stung
Live long live well eat jellyfish
I will be following up this post with several jellyfish-themed cookbooks, a pop-up jellyfish restaurant, a reality TV series in which celebrities are required to catch and cook jellyfish (a cross between I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and Come Dine With Me, can’t fail), and a number of lucrative high-end jellyfish products. One has to position oneself intelligently when these kind of global disasters are taking place.
We’ve published a book of Orlando’s recipes full of similar tales. For more about Orlando Gough Recipe Journal click here.