Fishing Lines: Losing faith in the barracuda

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The Independent Online
I WAS delighted to learn this week that Eileen Carey is still alive and well. You may find my concern for the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury somewhat odd. But I've been worried about her ever since she caught a barracuda.

During the Careys' most recent holiday, to South Carolina, the Archbishop doffed his mitre and headed out to sea for a spot of fishing. But God moves in mysterious ways, and it was his wife rather than the big cheese who attracted the day's best catch. Her trolled bait was grabbed by a hefty barracuda that, after some minutes' excitement, was brought into the boat with the Archbishop's help.

Now that's all I know about the story. I don't know how big the fish was, what else they caught or how George took being stuffed by his wife. I'm told that the barracuda was brought back and eaten. But ever since, I've been anxious. A luminary like His Grace, concerned to set a good biblical example, would surely have insisted that the fish should be eaten rather than wasted. And that could have meant searching for a new Archbishop of Canterbury.

For those who have never seen a barracuda, it is like a big silver pike. They grow up to eight feet - the world rod-caught record is 83lb - and have the most spectacular dentistry. These giant teeth, too big to fit properly in their mouths, give them the evil grin of a Mafia hit-man. Attacks on humans are very rare, but if you see one under water (they are often attracted by the splashing of swimmers) you wouldn't bet on it.

I caught them up to 42lb from a rowing boat off Barbados, but it was a baby of about 3lb that almost did for me. I was on holiday with my friend Chris, a master chef, but he spurned the idea of barbecued barracuda, insisting he had read somewhere that they were poisonous.

Now this is a familiar cry from those who do not know their bass from their elver. Almost anything with spikes is condemned as being lethal to eat. The only fish truly to justify such a reputation are the tetradontae family, better known as puffer fishes.

Most know them only from those tasteless lanterns sold in Spanish holiday shops, but in Japan, only registered chefs are allowed to serve fugu. Get it wrong, and you will die in six hours from tetrodotoxin poisoning. There is no antidote. (I've caught puffers on rod and line, but that's another story.)

Anyway, Chris refused to have even a bite of the barracuda. I filleted it, poached it with a few local herbs and lime juice, and scoffed the lot. Very nice it was, too. Chris, who incidentally had eaten another of our catches, a peacock flounder, a beautiful-looking flatfish with a taste like boiled mud, waited for me to writhe on the floor and generally behave like Linda Blair in The Exorcist . . . but nothing happened.

When I got home, I decided to read up on the barracuda. And I was horrified to discover that barracuda can indeed be highly poisonous. Barbadians claim to be able to identify a wrong 'un by its scales, a milky secretion on its body or the fact that its flesh will turn a silver coin black. But it was clear that there was no easy way to identify cuda with the ciguatera poison.

In all, more than 300 types of fish have been known to carry this toxin. Barracuda, amberjack and yellowfin grouper are the most common. Although not as deadly as the puffer fish (fewer than 10 per cent of ciguatera victims actually die), it can result in loss of muscular co-ordination or paralysis and recovery can take months. Symptoms, which occur within two or three hours, include a tingling sensation on the lips, tongue and throat; vomiting; a feeling of weakness; blisters and temporary blindness.

I have not eaten barracuda since.

I knew the Archbishop was all right: there have been plenty of newspaper accounts of his activities. But with the present turmoil racking the church, I feared that perhaps his wife had been murdered by a barracuda and the news - a further hammer blow to the faithful - had been embargoed until a more propitious time. What a relief to discover she has been saved.

It may have been a non-toxic barracuda. Maybe the good Archbishop knew all this ciguatera stuff and warned his wife - though at first glance, the frail old chap does not cut the figure of a big-game fisherman. Perhaps Mrs C simply doesn't like fish.

I like to believe that God took out the nasty bits.