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Barbecued Octopus, revisiting one of my food revelations in life.

This recipe reflects one the most revelatory food moments in my life. I equate it to Anthony Bourdain’s ‘oyster moment’, although the comparison between me and Tony Bourdain stops there! When I was about 14 years old, and already more inquisitive about food than your average 14 year old, my father was stationed with the Italian Air Force in the small town of Gioia del Colle in southern Italy in the Puglia region, now highly sought after for its rural and rustic Italian food scene.

We were out for a dinner in a local trattoria-style establishment and I saw that on the menu was barbecued octopus. I was intrigued.  I loved seafood even at that age.  When holidaying in France with the family I would always be on the lookout for a Fruits de Mer platter when out for dinner (or even browsing the stalls to scope one out for later on that evening).  I debated with my parents whether I should order the barbecued octopus, none of the family had eaten it before and unable to advise on whether I would like it or not. Always ones to allow me and my siblings to try new things (something I try to instil with my kids as well) my parents offered that I should try it and if I didn’t like it then I could always order a pizza or some pasta as a back up.

Well I did order it, and for reasons I cannot explain believed it would be served maybe sliced or diced, what I didn’t expect was it whole.  It was a rounded shape, tentacles in a curled manner making the whole thing fairly rounded. It was not too big as far as an individually served octopus goes, from recollection the size and volume of a medium-to-large cauliflower. It was the tentacles being intact that first threw me. I cut one off and placed my fork through it and gingerly put it up to my mouth. The first sensation I got was the feeling of the slightly charred suckers on my lips and my tongue, but I was already at that stage committed to the first bite…and what a bite! The moment the morsel was in my mouth the texture of succulent seafood combined with the Maillard-browned flesh was an utter sensation. Octopus, when barbecued, has a flavour and texture profile very much like any shellfish, mildly fleshy with a little bite and utterly unctuous.

Since this holiday several decades ago, I shamefully haven’t managed to readily find octopus to do at home in the UK. I saw some reduced in a supermarket frozen aisle last year and had to have it, worst case was it didn’t work and I learned something. The recipe is below but I have to say it was as enjoyable a dish as I recall from twenty plus years ago. I say as good, I’m sure the chef at this establishment was far better than I was and my Hampshire-served version lacked the scenery and ambiance of rural Puglia.  I am confident I know what I am doing now and it’s not a difficult item to prepare and cook for anyone considering, especially if the parts of the head (beak and ink sack) have been removed already.  The frozen octopus I had was just five tentacles, so easier and quicker to par boil and cook.

The one thing I did take away from this cook is that there is a lot of mention in online forums of the requirement to par boil, which is needed, but in my case I probably took it a bit past what was required, boiling the already separated tentacles for an hour or so before chilling and drying, they were very tender to the touch and didn’t need to be so. They could have benefitted from having less boiling time to give them more bite, my take away advice is ‘boil till tender’, if they feel like they’re done with a knife then they are done, I erred on the side of caution and went marginally (but not detrimentally) over. This learning curve would take an already good dish from ‘great’ to ‘par excellence’. I have noticed that a local fishmonger on my local market occasionally has fresh octopus, which I’m sure I’ll be tapping him up for sometime soon.

The main conundrum I had with this dish was not actually the octopus, a small amount of research gave enough clues to give confidence in how to prepare and cook octopus, it was what to serve with it that gave me cause for concern.  A simple salad? Vegetables? Potatoes? Rice? Polenta?  All seemed feasible options but none grabbed me.  A conversation with one of my wife’s foodie cousins gave me an idea, the last time they had octopus (‘last time’, like it’s regular over there??!!) it was served with white beans, so I went for cannellini, with garlic and spinach.

The recipe.

For the octopus:

5 octopus tentacles, marinated in:

Olive oil

Lemon zest and juice

White wine vinegar

Salt and pepper


For the cannellini beans:

Tin of pre-cooked cannellini beans

A little bit of white wine


White onion


Slat and pepper

For the rest:



(Both marinated in olive oil)

  1. Defrost (if frozen) octopus and low boil for 1hr or until tender ( which as I stated above, and you’ve done for just smaller cuts like the tentacles separated, might not take as long).

  2. Cool octopus in the liquid it was cooked in (I’m not entirely sure why you can’t cool by removing but near enough all recipes I saw online said so, so I went with it!).

  3. Prepare octopus marinade and when it has cooled in cooking liquid add to marinade and place in fridge.

  4. Fire up grill, use a pan to sweat down the onions, season and add white wine, reduce.  Add cannellini beans and cook, then add spinach to wilt.

  5. Get octopus onto grill and grill until charred, this process is just about gaining some Maillard reaction as you’ve already cooked it it.

  6. Grill asparagus and aubergine till charred.

  7. Serve.


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