As the year starts, we are all searching for the next big thing that will launch us into a frenzy of enthusiasm for the battle for the mouths and minds of hungry punters in the year ahead.

The sound of popping celebratory champagne bottles had only just subsided when editor Huckstep was on the phone from his seat at the Sydney test match, demanding a seafood piece for the next issue of Foodservice – the annual Breakfast issue.

Having previously warbled the values of smoked salmon and caviar as obvious breakfast staples, I struggled to clear the post New Year fuzz in my head as to what could be included as an appropriate, seafood discussion point relevant to a breakfast edition.

Breakfast can mean different things to different people, at different times of the day.

I remembered my time working in Japan, where, the early morning snack ‘de rigueur’ of the bar crawling crowd was the quirky, but truly delicious dish, TAKOYAKI.

In simple translation, Takoyaki (literally fried or grilled octopus) is a dumpling made of batter, diced or whole baby octopus, tempura scraps (tenkasu), pickled ginger, and green onion, topped with okonomiyaki sauce, ponzu, mayonnaise, green laver (aonori), and katsuobushi (fish shavings) – just the ticket for settling a stomach full of Kirin and Sake.

Prepared mostly by street vendors, who are often as quirky as the snack itself (I guess that tends to apply to all venders of late night/early morning snacks – think hot-dog cart operators and kebab shop proprietors) this die-hard breakfast snack, whilst not a staple amongst the coffee and low fat granola seen on many Australian tables pre-noon; made me realise that octopus could well become one of the next big things in seafood in 2011.

Whilst confusion reigns as to what seafood does or doesn’t represent sustainable, local or organic production, the simple octopus ticks every box, fast growing, short lifecycle, prolific breeders and suited to species exclusive fisheries (which mean zero by-catch of non targeted species)

Quite simply, wild caught Australian octopus is a stand out in the sustainable seafood stakes.

Available year round, octopus is in its peak condition

Octopus is found throughout Australia and whilst there are several species harvested commercially, it is generalised as the “large” and the “baby”, which in itself is somewhat confusing as much of the “baby” octopus harvested on the East Coast of Australia as a by-product of the prawn fishery, is mature and actually only grow to the size of a human fist.

Often, previously only found whole un-tenderised, it is common these days to find both “baby” and large octopus cleaned and tenderised.

Like the squid and cuttlefish, octopus freezes well – and contrary to best practice in the freezing of finfish and shellfish (i.e. fast hard freezing at -40-60c), a slow freezing process (i.e. frozen at a -25-35c) assists in denaturing the tough fibres, which make for chewy eating.

Like much of the seafood eaten in Australia, the majority of octopus consumed in Australia is cheap, imported product from South East Asia. Local production has historically been the by-product of other fisheries such as the prawn trawling mentioned above on the East Coast and the Lobster trap fisheries in South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and WA.

However, as the status of Octopus has grown over the past 10 years or so, several local fishing businesses have focussed their efforts in the development of octopus specific fisheries.

Stand out amongst these is Western Australian based Fremantle Octopus.

The Company, set up by brothers Craig and Ross Cammilleri, in 2000, Freemantle Octopus has focussed on the species of octopus O tetricus. This species is considered to be one of the best eating octopus in the world due to the abundance of its favourite food – lobster, crab and scallop.

The rich, dense flesh has an almost lobster sweetness to it, the smooth, creamy texture a result of the handling at harvest and the use of the slow freezing method.

Over 10 years, the Cammilleri, brothers have developed a world’s first Octopus trap, which exploits the octopus’s natural inquisitive nature, without attracting any other species of sea animal.

Fremantle Octopus has been developing a ranching programme for their wild caught octopus, which promises to allow ongoing consistency and continuity of supply.

The Fremantle octopus is available in frozen “hands” – a complete set of legs weighing approximately 1-1.5kg each. I find the eating quality superb, characterised by a rich deep shellfish flavour and a clean white flesh. Ideally suited to braising, char-grilling and slow roasting, this octopus can also be eaten raw in Carpaccio or sashimi.

Terry Nissahara of Sydney’s standout Japanese diner, Jurin massages it with rock salt and green tea before poaching it in a dashi mirin brew – to say it is bloody delicious is an understatement.

Port Lincoln based Austar Seafood’s also have an octopus specific fishery centred in Coffin Bay. The species they catch is endemic to the region and is generally caught in its juvenile stage, using a method of set pots on a long line. The Austar Coffin Bay baby octopus is caught and killed quickly, retaining maximum flavour and texture integrity. The coffin Bay Octopus is characterised by its salty “zing” and firm bite – ideally suited to both slow cooked/ braising and hi-heat preparations.

Martin Benn of Sydney’s Sepia restaurant uses the Coffin Bay Baby Octopus in his amazing mdish of Roasted Boneless Darne of Snapper, Braised Octopus “Risotto”, Spiced Red Pepper, Parsley Root, Black Olive

Distributor Frank Theodore of DeCosti Seafood’s believe the Coffin Bay Baby octopus is the pick of the small octopus, suggesting that it’s depth of flavour and texture makes it far superior to imported product.

Tasmanian company TOP is one of the longest established octopus specific fishing businesses in Australia, having been producing fresh blanched and frozen octopus “hands” for nearly 40 years.

Michael Hardy, his wife Jan and sons, catch and process Bass Strait octopus at their factory in Stanley. Steamed, marinated or pickled, it is available at specialty shops around the country and has been a long standing favorite of the Japanese community.

One of the largest producers of trawled “baby” octopus – a by product of the Eastern King Prawn fishery, Clarence River Fisherman’s Co-op has been a regular supplier into the domestic Australian market for years. Mostly caught between January and May, the Clarence River Octopus is rarely larger than a fist and generally requires tenderizing. Often done by placing it in a concrete mixer, the octopus tentacles become tightly curled – or “flowered”.

The Clarence River octopus has unique characteristics – a mild, smooth flavours and firm texture, it is the preferred octopus of Sydney Greek chef David Tsirekas’, his signature dish of Clarence River octopus pickled in white vinegar, blended vegetable and extra virgin olive oil with garlic, lemon and oregano.

So whether you are on your way home from a big night of karaoke seeking a fortifying breakfast, or just looking to enjoy a great value, delicious seafood, think octopus – and especially the local ones – they are readily available, versatile and great value – go ahead try your hand with 8 legs, you know it makes sense.

February 2011