The third in a set of magic-realist culinary journeys. Sometimes a bit of escapism is just what’s needed in midwinter.
Farfetched Flavours 3
On this never-ending quest for new and exotic tastes, it must be said that the strongest and most captivating flavours have come from the world of fruit. Meat, inevitably, has a fairly limited taste profile. While crocodile, venison and ostrich all have their unique attributes, none will surprise you. The hangover from post-war days when consumption of meat was considered a luxury still endures today, even though it is so commonplace now that avoiding it is actually difficult. Eggs, too, are typically proteinous, sulphurous, and slightly salty in flavour, no matter the bird from which they are produced.
It was something of a surprise, then, to discover the egg of the tropical Rupu bird. The Rupu builds its nest on a remote island some thirty minutes by boat off the coast of Tobago. The island has an active volcano, and satellite image interpreters initially dismissed its appearance as a blip on the screen. Grasses grow tall here, and the beginnings of palm trees can be seen peeking above the two-metre tall greenery that now covers the lowest altitudes.
On the mountain itself, however, with the danger ever rumbling, it is a wonder that any life exists here at all. Enter the Rupu, whose beak is hardened to break brittle, still warm volcanic rock as it erupts. These grey-black pieces are taken to the island floor, where they are made into large heaps, like miniature versions of their mother. The Rupu even makes a shallow dip at the summit, which becomes the centre of the nest.
The task is an ongoing one, for with each eruption the landscape is destroyed, and the birds must survive the intervening period without shelter. Good thing that their diet is fish from the local shallows, which are in near perpetual supply. The Rupu’s wingspan matches the hardness of its beak in extremity, for it is as wide as its beak is hard.
Given the sulphurous qualities of most eggs, one would be forgiven in expecting the flavour of the Rupu egg to be at least as ‘eggy’ as its overseas cousins. However, not so. The eggs themselves are sizeable, about half the size of an ostrich egg – and the shells are almost as hard as the surrounding black rock. Is this to ensure the emerging young is fully prepared to deal with its surroundings before escape from the primordial is permitted?
Breaking into the egg is therefore a task in itself. Local people use a specially crafted tool that looks more like a pick-axe than a hammer for getting to the goodness inside. Once the initial opening has been made, the hole can be widened by hand and the contents emptied into a pan once large enough.
Boiling in the shell is inadvisable as the exterior is so resistant to heat, so the usual approach is to fry or poach. These eggs, I was told, are not for scrambling.
As for the outside, or white of the egg; instead of sulphur, the taste begins with a slightly unpleasant metallic note, like the taste of blood, or like licking a penny piece. Then, as it is chewed and the enzymes in the saliva begin to break it down, the flavours shift. The balance of chemicals in the mouth creates a flavour just like a hearty casserole, full of rich umami and saltiness. At once, one is transported to mother’s house, sitting at the dinner table in midwinter, eating home-cooked food.
But this is not all. On a bite of the yolk, I tasted the sea – white fish and fresh air, served with the kind of fried bread one only finds in tropical regions such as the Caribbean. This is why scrambling was impossible – the tastes of exotic surf and nostalgic turf were to stay separate. The experiences of escapism and home comforts that matched the food were so particular, so special to the diner.
Such delights are, as is often the case, to be restricted. Due to the Rupu’s oceanic diet of seawater fish, the mercury content in the eggs is very high. The birds survive by expelling much of the content into its eggs – the casing being a quasi-amalgam – or, for the males, excreting after processing by their oversized, specialised livers. We are not so blessed, so these moments of joy are necessarily rationed.