Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The death of an octopus.

The fish market on Quai des Belges in Marseille is a heck of a place. It must have been a mess in 1943 when the Nazis smashed it up, but it's since been rebuilt as a fully functioning seafood outlet and (for curious British visitors like myself) a free aquarium.

Fishermen line the harbour with blue plastic trays on legs, filling them with eels, crabs, lobsters, octopi - whatever their nets and pots have dragged out of the sea that morning. A bucket or two of sea water is added to keep them alive for a bit so proper freshness of wares can be demonstrated. And to give tourists like me something to look at.

For the creatures in the trays it has to be a one-way trip. I assume any animals remaining unsold after the morning trade will be thrown to the hungry gulls who squawk their impatience from the walls of the Vieux-Quai. No point chucking them back. The pressure change, warmth and dryness of air above the Mediterranean waters would surely kill these deep-sea creatures, horribly. After a while.

But, for now, they're alive and dancing a final sub-aquatic tango in an alien place. The lobsters and crabs, crammed together into one plastic tray, are clacking and crawling over each other. Some of the bigger crabs have their powerful claws clipped together with bright blue elastic bands so they can inflict no injury on fisherman, customer or fellow crab.

A few trays along, I catch sight of the octopi. Three or four are writhing in a few inches of water at the bottom of a box. Their suckered tentacles are both beautiful and repulsive, in the same way that a big-ass spider might be a compelling spectacle but completely terrifying (to me). An octopus in front of me is pushing his head up out of the shallow pool, and it seems for a moment as if his small, blinking eyes are looking upwards to make contact with mine.

As he (it might be a she - I have not a clue) wriggles on, a Marseille woman in winter coat and scarf leans into the tray and points out two octopi to the man facing her across the stall. A rough hand grips one octopus by its head and a mess of heavy, wet flesh and tentacles is plucked out of the tray and dropped into a pink plastic bag. A second animal follows. In seconds, the handles of the bag are tied in a loose knot and the whole wriggling heap is dropped roughly onto some scales beside the counter.

The pair are weighed and a price per kilo is offered and accepted with a nod from the shopper. The bag is untied again, and while the woman searches her purse for Euros the fisherman's hand pulls one of the animals back out of the bag. I see its almost-human eyes again and see its tentacles flail about in confusion. Then, in a flash, I see another hand drive a knife or screwdriver or similar quietly and without fuss into the octopus's head. It stabs through its fleshy underneath, through its beak and to its brain somewhere between its eyes. The tentacles droop slowly. From animal to dinner in a few short seconds - as easy as chopping up a carrot.

And that was the end of the octopus.