For years, I never thought I liked asparagus. That's because I grew up with asparagus in cans, which seems an entirely different vegetable than the fresh stuff now readily available everywhere.
Until the last decade or so, I thought I didn't like strawberries: too mealy, dry and flavorless. Or so I thought. Then in the early Aughts, I had some locally grown strawberries from the Oak Park Farmers' Market. "Oh," I realized, "that's what strawberries are is supposed to taste like. They're good!"
Similarly, until recently, I thought I didn't care much for conch. Earlier this year, I had some distinctly mediocre renditions of this beast in the beautiful shell. Throughout the Florida Keys and even in Key West (the so-called Conch Republic), the conch I had caused me to marvel at its apparent popularity. It seemed like so much nothing. And I can't say I was very impressed by the somewhat flavorless strands served in a soup at Chicago's Garufina Flava, an otherwise charming place run by a friendly Belizean family. I sincerely wanted to like the conch there; alas, there was just not much to like.
In St. Croix in the United States Virgin Islands as part of a press trip, I had what is to-date, in my experience, the gold standard of conch. Instead of pale and rubbery-verging-on-leathery strips, the spectacular conch I had on several occasions at different restaurants around Christiansted was unidentifiable as being in the same species as the same lower-grade seafood served in the States.
I had lush and flavorful conch stew over seasoned rice at La Reine Chicken Shack, similarly flavorful and tender conch salad at The Mermaid and some conch in butter sauce (a traditional Cruzan favorite) at Harvey's, all in the Christiansted area.
At each of these places, the conch was plump, tender, not at all chewy, with light seafood notes, much like scallop, but more subtle. Somewhat strangely, it was gray, not white, like all the conch I'd had in the States.
Because conch is still harvested off the coasts of USVI, it comes to the table fresh, not frozen, which may have something to do with both its excellent flavor and texture…but not necessarily.
One day, coming back from La Reine, I was talking to a Cruzan taxi driver, Ames Joseph. He told me that he'd often hunted conch when he was a boy. Ames said he would crack the short end of the shell (which releases the suction hold that keeps the animal in place); then he'd work a twisted coat hanger around the inside of the shell to corkscrew out the meat. Then…he froze it, "to soften it up," he said.
Although I'd originally thought that freezing is what made the meat tough, it makes some sense to freeze the meat, which would actually cause the cells to burst, thereby rendering it perhaps even more tender.
But restaurants in St. Croix rarely get frozen conch. What probably makes their conch so discernibly different is that it's wild harvested, whereas much of the conch in Florida comes from Bermuda and Turks & Caicos, which has some of the largest conch farms in the world. Like many farmed food operations, I'm guessing that the animals are maybe force-fed, plumped up, and harvested, in the most unnatural ways, resulting in a mediocre product.
Whatever the cause, Cruzan conch is spectacular, and I enjoyed it even in fritters, which usually seem just to be just fried balls of cornmeal with something indistinguishable inside. Because conch is so abundant in the Virgin Islands, the fritters were filled with meaty chunks of this sea creature which, I can finally say, can be delicious. It's the conch I'd been waiting for; I knew it had to exist.
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