Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Conk Man

We have come across three traditional foods on Grand Cayman: turtle, conch and jerk chicken.  Today, we learned about conch.  Over here they pronounce the name of the large sea mollusk (strombus gigas) 'conk' not conch.  The shells are everywhere.  Earlier, I'd posted about seeing drifts of them at Barkers Point but they are all around town.  Every restaurant has conch on the menu.  There are conch burgers, conch chowder, conch cerviche, cracked conch with pickled fennel....

A conch I picked up in the sand at Barkers.
A drift of conch shells
Conch shells are ubiquitous.  There are roadside stands advertising varnished conch shells for $10.  Every house has a few of them outside - for Christmas they are put up in rows as decoration.  Some of the shells are old and faded white but locals paint them pink again.  Down the road from us we saw a house in which conch shells had been cemented into a wall and painted and a sign for conch horns and shells.  I asked a passing local why the shells all had a hole in the top and she said "You should ask Eden, he's the conch man".

The conch wall.  Wren waits to find out about a conch horn.

A lovely conch shell outside Eden's
Eden was sitting outside his house smoking and drinking a beer.  Old fishing nets and floats snagged the branches of a nearby tree and a radio played from a gazebo where a game of dominos lay, unstarted.  A life sized plastic marlin stuck its head out from a sea grape.  He is a man in his early 60s with a rich Cayman accent.  Seeing us talking about conch, he came over and explained that he had to make a hole in the top of the shell because it was the easiest way to cut the muscle and remove the flesh of the snail to eat. 

I found this reference to the Queen Conch harvest on the site for the Cayman Department of the Environment, explaining that the measured population declined by 50% 1988-2006:

"The Queen Conch has been harvested for human consumption since prehistoric times.  It represents one of the most commercially exploited marine species in the Carribean.This has led to overfishing and depletion of most know shallow water stocks." 

There are limits on the catch and a closed season, but poaching and over-harvesting still occurs.  The large conch has a wide flange with bright pink color while a young conch is called a 'conch roller' because it has not yet grown the wide lip and so will roll in the surf.

Eden explained that the dives for conch in North Bay but that they are now more scarce.  That said, he is still selling conch horns - a traditional horn that makes a loud noise and remains an accepted noise maker for a small craft under US Coast Guard regulations!  He went inside and returned with a conch horn, giving us a demonstration of how to blow it.

Wren IMMEDIATELY wanted one and tonight we returned to pick it up.

Wren, his conch horn and Eden - the maker

Wren is thrilled with his conch horn.  He has learned to blow it and is very careful to keep it safe. Eden gave Frost a conch shell (with a hole) that was eaten.  He is also pleased with it but unsure that US Customs will allow us to return to the US with it.   This is a valid concern since conch are Conch are protected under the Endangered Species (Trade & Transport) Law.  I have checked and you are allowed to bring them in from Cayman.  I am not sure what Wren will do if we are not!

Here is a very interesting local article on the eating and endangered status of the conch.  


nautilus said...

I can see how Wren is very pleased with his conch. Are you going to try eating something conch? would maybe be like chowder?

Shannon said...

Hi Mum,
I have thought about it and decided not to eat anything conch. They are endangered and controlled under the CITES (Convention on International trade in endangered species). I have no great need to eat them even though they are locally enjoyed.

It is not my tradition and I don't want to start one if they are truly delicious.

- Shannon