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Seafaring Days

Mementoes of our seafaring days show up in many ways. All the talk last summer of tall ships has reminded me of that era that we have so almost lost contact with ... but sometimes we are reminded in such simple ways. There was, in the olden days, hardly an Island house that hadn't a conch shell somewhere or other; holding a door opened, on display in the garden or in the barn collecting dust. They were taken for granted, but they were not indigenous and they would all have arrived during our days of sail usually from the West India's, I suppose. Sometimes you find coral and I have a brain coral in MY garden - at least that is what somebody told me it was.

Now these conch shells had another use. When we were tenant farmers and there were those among us hell bent on collecting rents, we needed a warning system and the conch came into great use. In a special way those conch shells could become horns, blown to warn the neighbours of impending trouble. In a book on Key West I found out how to make a conch shell horn - after you remove the conch "... use a electric saw or hacksaw, cut off the conical tip of the shell in a straight line and then with a screw driver pry out the inner spiral that blocks the cup-shaped opening. Discard it. The opening should be about an inch across. Sand paper the edges smooth and now the conch shell is ready to be blown like a trumpet. You can vary the pitch by inserting your hand at different depths; the deeper the hand the lower the tone. No two shells are identical, some are easier to play than others and still others have a greater musical range". So when you come upon an conch shell on this Island, remember it did not originate here and it tells the story of another time.

Once when a group of us were sailing in the Virgin Islands, one of our crew dove down and recovered a conch shell with the conch still in it. We had never seen one with the inhabitant before. We put it in the cock-pit and went to sleep. It wasn't long before we were all awakened by the bang bang of the conch travelling along the cock-pit in a despaired effort to get back to where it had come from. The muscluar animal that occupies a conch shell is far more aggressive than we ever understood and there is a trick to removing them. You have to pierce the shell near the spiral tip to sever the muscle that binds the conch to its shell and then it is easy to get out. In an article in the National Post this summer I was interested to read about the Bahamians' view on the conch these "muacular crustaceans" and their eatable qualities "... the flavour is a little hard to explain. I think it tastes, and consistency is, closest to an abalone clam. Ask five people what a conch tastes like and you would get five differnt answers. One would say clams, the other lobsters and the third guy claims 'the sea' and on it goes". From the conch you can make a chowder, a marinated salad, fritters or you can simply grill them. Whatever, the article says they can become an obsession. I'm not so sure, after a night with one pounding around in the cock pit, I'd rather leave them in the sea or go to a very special resturant and have them prepared for me. The conch shells that I have found in PEI barns seem to be a far distant from all of that.

Written Friday, October 27, 2000 at 02:28 PM

(c) 2000 by Catherine Hennessey. Questions or comments? Email me@catherinehennessey.com

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