Sounding the Conch Shell at Sunset
You are in the Bahamas; anchored in a peaceful cove with just a few other sailboats visible in the distance. The sun is slowing sinking below the horizon. You are savouring a sundowner cocktail. Softly, at first, then slowly building to a crescendo, you hear the first horn. The sound of another conch horn fills the air - then another and another - until you, too, lift a conch horn and add your unique tune to the night air.
There is nothing like it in the world and no other place you'd rather be.
Every evening at sunset, in the Bahamas and just about anywhere you find cruising sailors, this scene will be repeated. Last winter, we learned how to make conch shell horns for ourselves and for all the other kids in our family.
Getting the Conch
You can find piles of discarded conch shells everywhere in the Bahamas - although most have a hole in them so that the meat of the conch could be removed. You can use these shells to make a horn, but you have to patch the hole with a little fiberlgass and resin. If you do it right, no one will ever notice where the hole used to be.
You can also buy an intact conch shell - just about anywhere - for less than $5. Just ask any of the young men who hang around the harbor of a Bahamanian Cay.
We picked our conchs fresh from the shallow water of the mangrove swamps or along the shoreline of a protected bay. We are very careful to leave the babies and immature adults alone. A legal-sized conch has a large fully developed lip on the shell.
If you are using a fresh conch, you need to remove (and use) the meat from the shell. The method used most frequently in the Bahamass, is to hammer a hole in the shell at about the third ring up and detach the muscle from the shell with a knife. The locals make it look effortless - we nearly destroyed our shells trying to get the technique down pat.
Another method for removing conch meat is hang the shell upside down out in the sun, until the dying conch crawls out or looses his grip.Quite honestly, this method seems a little cruel to me and may end up spoiling the meat, which is a terrible waste.
My preferred method is the most humane. I gently carry the shell down the companionway of our boat, telling the conch that he has won a free vacation to this wonderful place called "Alaska" where the air is cold and so refreshing. I place the conch shell in the freezer of our boat where he falls into a contented sleep. The following morning, the meat is easily removed using needle-nosed pliers, leaving the shell in pristine condition.
Cleaning and Cooking Conch
There is nothing pleasant about cleaning a conch; but the meat can be used in some many good recipes that it is well worth the effort.
The first time I tried to clean a conch, I was using a cutting board in my galley - Bad Mistake. The second time, I sat on the beach with my cutting board - trying to be neat and tidy - Another Mistake. I finally gave up and sat in the water while I cut away all the gooey slim and inedible parts. Basically, you get rid of everything but the solid white meat. Get someone to show you.
There are so many things you can do with conch meat - Conch Salad, Conch Fritters, Cracked Conch, or Chowder. But first you have to tenderize it. You can slice it thin and pound it with a meat mallet - or you can grind it up.
Here is my favorite Cracked Conch recipe:
After beating the conch meat until it almost falls apart, dip conch pieces in a mixture of 1 beaten egg, 1/4 cup of milk, a squeeze of lime juice, salt and pepper. Coat in flour and fry in oil until golden brown.
Blowing the Conch Horn
Turning a conch shell into a horn takes patience and a dremel tool. You need to cut the tip of the shell off at about the third ring to make the mouthpiece.
The technique for blowing your horn is similar to that used for a french horn. Pucker your lips and blow air through them - making a put-put-put sound. Now put your lips up to the mouthpiece of the conch and do the same thing. Your first few attempts at blowing your new horn may sound a little bit like rude body noises, but practice makes perfect.
I'll listen for you tonight at sunset.
- Sailing Solitaire
Join Jim and Nancy as they sail the Bahamas, along with their two cats, aboard a 41' Morgan Classic Sailboat.
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