Hope you have all enjoyed the last few days – however you celebrated or spent it, whether you overate and overdrank, whether you spent it riotously or quietly, at parties or with a few family or friends. After returning from holiday straight into Christmas with the family, I’m only now beginning to return to something resembling normality, though still have much catching up to do.
With tall palms fanning the air around us, we were sitting beneath a hibiscus tree with deep pink flowers on a little terrace shoehorned into the hillside, looking out over the bay with a flotilla of brightly painted fishing boats drawn up on the beach. We were enjoying salads, and chatting to the couple at an adjoining table. After three days at sea, they had docked earlier that morning, and had left their cruise ship (one of two in Funchal harbor, Madeira, that day) and hotfooted it to take the red hop-on-hop-off bus to this small restaurant in Câmara de Lobos in search of the black scabbardfish. The woman was an aficionado of this Madeiran delicacy.
I found a photograph of black scabbardfish in Funchal market on Wikipedia. They are ugly brutes, more akin to some monster in Dr Who than to anything any sane person could enjoy. But the Madeirans love it, and the fish are of significant importance to the local economy.
According to Wikipedia, the black scabbardfish, Aphanopus carbo, is a bathypelagic cutlassfish of the family Trichiuridae found in the Atlantic Ocean between latitudes 69° N and 27° N at depths of between 180 to 1,700 metres. It can reach 110 cm in length, though reaches maturity at around 80 to 85 cm. A dorsal fin runs down its back like a long narrow fan with spines as spokes, and in colour it is coppery black with an iridescent tint, with large round eyes so it can see in the ocean’s depth, and jaws and teeth like an alligator.
Sounds more like an outfit for a horror movie than a dish to drool over, but the woman at the next table assured us she had travelled a great distance to taste it again, despite Wikipedia warning that consumption of the liver, which can contain toxic heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium, or raw or under cooked fish, can result in health complications for humans. But perhaps this risk lends the fish a weird attraction.
A local chef prepared the fish for Fôrma d’Açúcar, the small restaurant and shop — presumably ensuring the removal of the liver. The presentation looked interesting, and the dish appeared to meet with the approval of our dining neighbour and her husband. They did ask for an additional dish to accompany it, though I had no idea what this was, but was later told by another dining companion that black scabbardfish is often served with banana (presumably of the small Madeiran variety seen clinging to the earth on handkerchief sized plots of hillside around the island).
Amongst the beached boats in the bay was one on which fish (not black scabbardfish) were drying in the centuries old manner – by wind and sun. Dried fish was a staple in the diet of many fishing nations. In northern latitudes it was dried salt cod (anyone who saw the film Babette’s Feast will remember the instructions on washing, steeping and cooking it into an unappetising mass). In Scotland herring salted in barrels provided nutrition. And in my childhood I remember with disgust the piles of dried ling (a cod-like fish), grey as an old floorcloth, filling the window of the local fishmonger season after season. Perhaps the reason why I was well into adulthood before I would eat fish.
But back to the scabbardfish. The possible risk of eating fish such as this pushed my thoughts to the uncertainty of life by the sea, and the dangers and hazards common to those who earn their living by fishing. Scotland used to have a large fishing fleet, but in recent years this has been decimated, yet the close relationships in fishing communities remain. What affects one of their number affects all. And sadly there are events that can affect all, or nearly all – when some sudden squall or turn of the weather can result in the decimation of fishing fleet and village men.
So it wasn’t surprising to come across a little church by the harbour with a door open in welcome, and an invitation to step inside and view their nativity scene. With simple flagged floor, painted and gilded walls, painted planked ceiling, plain wooden pews and heavy doors to keep the salt winds at bay, this was without doubt a church for the village’s fishing community.
This was a place not just for the celebrations of Christmas, but one of comfort to an anguished congregation when the catch was poor or a boat failed to return; a place of happy gathering, filled with gratitude that lifted faces when men and boats returned safely, and with a good catch of catfish, black scabbardfish or other riches from the deep.