I was intrigued, and so I ordered it. The confit of octopus tentacles arrived on a long narrow plate, cephalopod chunks scattered amidst swirls of black olive paste and peach-coloured dabs of chilli aioli and strewn with tiny purple flowers and parsley. Almost too pretty to eat, but after shamelessly photographing it I plunged in. The octopus was so tender it seemed to melt into my tongue; the warm spongey sourdough I used to mop up the medley of flavours. It was a striking start to a meal.
Confit is a term bandied about on menus with frequently inaccurate applications. Duck confit is one of the more common manifestations, having become almost commonplace – and yet it is surprising how many people are not terribly sure just what, exactly, the confit part means. The word comes from the French confrire, to preserve, an intrinsic part of kitchen routine on farms throughout history. Cookbook writer Paula Wolfert describes it as ‘a way of making use of every part of the animal from good pork shoulder and meaty duck legs to such humble odds and ends as duck and goose gizzards, wings and necks, or the tongue and ears of the pig’. (That’s for you, Gil Crespy.)
A means of keeping meats without refrigeration, it is one of the most ancient methods of preservation and today is regarded as a great classic of French cuisine. It involves the salting of food before it is cooked slowly in fat, preferably its own. The salt draws out the moisture and the slow initial heating allows all the fat under the skin to melt out whilst retaining the shape of the meat and ensuring the sublime, delicate tenderness which distinguishes a properly made confit. It is the submergence in fat during the long slow cooking which creates a barrier against air and spoilage.
I remember an ex-boyfriend’s account of his first attempt at duck confit – probably, in hindsight, responsible for a reluctance I have always felt to have a go at it myself. Andrew described duck fat from floor to ceiling although I gather the end-result was worth the chaos (and cleaning up).
Octopus confit was new to me, although I have long been familiar with Tetsuya’s signature dish of Ocean Trout Confit – and been privileged enough to eat it. Some of the liberties being taken with the term, however, can be exemplified by a recipe I found in a recent food magazine for cherry tomato confit which added up to nothing more than tomatoes macerating in balsamic vinegar, garlic and lots of olive oil – the term a mere affectation. Matt Moran, on the other hand, does a fantastic roast confit potato dish in which, correctly, he immerses quartered potatoes in one entire litre of duck fat along with thyme and garlic and cooks them for about half an hour before then roasting them fiercely for another forty minutes. From the last time I roasted a duck I still have a container of rich rich rich duck fat patiently part of the contents of my refrigerator and as soon as I can bring myself to submit to the decadence of it all I plan to confit something or other – if only to get rid of it!
(The confit of octopus tentacles with gremolata, dried black olives and chilli aioli can be sampled at Little Truffle restaurant, an hour up the road at Mermaid Beach, where everything else is as outrageously good.)