Move over, calamari. The pale octopus is set to take its place on more restaurant plates in Sydney and Melbourne.
"Thirty years ago calamari was caught as bait," says Victorian Fisheries Authority director Dallas D'Silva. "Now it is one of the most highly valued seafoods in the nation. We're hoping the pale octopus can do the same, capturing the imagination of Australian seafood lovers while giving a good return to our commercial fishers."
D'Silva refers specifically to the species Octopus pallidus. In the past, the medium-sized octopus has been a bycatch of lobster and scallop fishing and was sometimes used as bait in lobster traps. Found in waters around southern Australia it has a pale, sandy colour which helps it blend into sea floors.
Octopus pallidus also has a short life span of 12 to 18 months, breeds easily and is caught using plastic pots dropped on the seabed in up to 30 metres of water.
A new category of fishing licences specific to octopus was introduced last year, leading to the development of promising octopus fishing grounds in Victorian waters, especially in the seas just off East Gippsland.
"Octopus hunt for shellfish at night and find shelter during the day in objects on the sandy seabed," says commercial fisher Tony "Pudd" Pollard from Lakes Entrance in East Gippsland. "They find the pots perfect for shelter which means we don't have to bait them."
The pots were specially developed for the octopus industry by a company in Western Australia. "Over there they have different sized pots so they can catch different sized occy," says Pollard. "Here we catch them about the same size. The secret to a good catch is understanding the underwater terrain and knowing where they live."
Many of Pollard's octopus are trucked to Sydney Fish Market and end up in restaurants such as sustainable seafood-focused Love.Fish on the waterfront at Barangaroo. "The pale octopus ticks every box for us," says Love.Fish co-owner Michelle Grand-Milkovic.
"It is becoming harder and harder to put fresh, quality, wild-caught local fish on the menu at a price that suits our relaxed style of dining. COVID saw Australian seafood prices rise and so an affordable, but extremely delicious seafood such as pale octopus is perfect. It's sustainable and reproduces well. It is not a species that is going to be overfished."
Love.Fish chef Michael Milkovic tenderises octopus tentacles in a steam oven before wood-grilling for a smoky char and deep golden hue. He counters the tentacle's meatiness with a tangy tahini and lemon dressing.
In spite of the popularity of My Octopus Teacher – the 2020 Oscar-winning documentary about the relationship between a filmmaker and curious young octopus – Grand-Milkovic says customers haven't been deterred from eating the cephalopod and the dish has become a bestseller.
In Melbourne, chef Karen Martini is set to soon feature the octopus in a pasta dish, but is still testing recipes in the Hero kitchen at ACMI. Sud Food and Wine in the city is also developing a new dish to showcase the pallidus, while Greek-born chef Andreas Papadakis has long been a fan of the species.
"We order pale octopus whenever it is available," says Papadakis, co-owner of Osteria Ilaria and Tipo 00 on Little Bourke Street.
"It has a wonderful texture when cooked properly. A smaller octopus needs to be cooked slowly in oil at about 60 degrees. The larger ones, we sous vide [in vacuum-sealed bags]." Lately at Osteria Ilaria, Papadakis has been serving the tentacles dressed in squid ink sauce and finished with finger lime.
The pale octopus is proving a boon for commercial fishers such as Andrew Zapantis. He fishes from Port Welshpool in South Gippsland and takes his catch live to the Melbourne Fish Market.
"We are getting good prices, $8 a kilogram, which means you can make a living," says Zapantis. Born to Greek parents, the fisher grew up eating octopus. "I cook it for the crew on the galley stove at sea. A bit of oil, a bit of salt. Delicious. They love it."