Custom Search

by Mike Machnicki - London - England

Black Scabbard Fish (Aphanopus Carbo)

click for bio


For many of you winter is a time of hibernation, for some a time of boat building and for others, like me, a time of annual holidays. Winter in England is not the bright crisp snowy event it is in many place. It is usually cold, very damp and gray to the extent that we don't see the sun sometimes for weeks, so an annual pilgrimage to the sun makes an ideal break while waiting for spring and commencement of the boat building schedule. Without taking long inter continental flights at great expense the nearest place to more or less guarantee sunshine is off the African coast, either Madeira or the Canary Islands. Having visited both several times I find the greener Madeira is more to my taste, the only lack is in a sandy beach, but then we can't have everything and having two week's sunshine in the depths of winter is the most important thing. The apartment we use is very beautifully kept with tropical gardens containing a huge variety of imported and indigenous plants all neatly labelled. For the more active it also boasts several swimming pools and a gym.

Only a small part of the gardens, which boast over 450 species of plants from all over the world

Though these things are important for a comfortable and relaxing holiday it is the presence of the sea all around the small island with its constantly changing moods and its bounty that holds the fascination, I suspect that this affinity is the case for most sailors. One of the most memorable times I recall was at sea on a pitch black night watching twin trails of phosphorescence at the back of the catamaran and feeling the sway of the boat as it silently made its way home. Anyway enough digression and back to the island which is a small lump of rock 30 miles long by 15 wide, about 300 miles off the coast of Morocco. It belongs to Portugal and has a relatively young history of human habitation as it was first discovered in 1419 by Zarco, a Portuguese navigator. Since then some parts of the island have been extensively developed by the tourist trade, the street our hotel is on has seen the addition of four new hotels in the past couple of years, despite the recession. Being volcanic by nature it is very hilly with a rocky coast and deep water, due to this much of the island is not suitable for habitation and so is a dense mat of undergrowth and large trees, many of which are the introduced Australian eucalyptus trees. In addition many of the terraces which produced vegetables and fruit have been abandoned by a new generation who have found an easier life style in tourism. Only a few of the older generation still continue to drag the heavy produce up steep slopes, once they are gone it is doubtful that any will replace them.

An example of the hilly terrain heavily terraced above Camara de Lobos, in this case most of it is planted with bananas

Just four miles down the road from us is the small fishing village of Camara de Lobos, which translates to bay of wolves on account of the 'sea lions' that were found in the small bay, these were in fact large monk seals which early settlers presumed were sea lions. It is a typical small fishing village displaying the usual aspects of harbour life, old men gathering to play cards in the local taverns and young men repairing fishing boats and nets while waiting for the next trip.

Harbour life, mostly playing cards in this photo, but some serious work occurs as well

As you can see from the picture the boats are small and very sturdily built, similar to fishing boat you will see throughout the Mediterranean and Portugal. These boats and men are used to earning a tough living on the rough Atlantic coast, in addition to which the type of fishing they do is unique and has its own particular challenges.

Not what I would call an elegant boat, more and oversized bath tub, but then again it is strongly built to do the job in hand
The rest of the fleet

Though they fish for many types of sea food that the waters abound with; Bream, Sardines, Tuna, Mackerel, Grouper the real speciality of the island is the Black Scabbard Fish or Espada as it is locally known. The men fish at night from small boats deploying lines of over a mile long, with hooks every 6 feet on the lower portion of the line baited with mackerel. For many years, since its discovery in 1800's, it was thought that the Espada were unique to Madeira but the fish have been caught in other locations nearby, off the Portuguese coast, Canary Islands and Ireland, also much further away off the Japanese coast. Despite these other populations, Madeira, and in particular Camara de Lobos, remains the prime location and as far as we can tell sustainable, though the expansion of the tourist industry will no doubt change the availability and price.

The harbour at Camara de Lobos. If you think it looks small in this picture you should see it in real life as the camera makes it look BIG

The fishing boat in the previous picture is on the right of this frame

Towards the rear of the covered market in Funchal lies the fish market, like all of its kind it has a distinctive smell, while not particularly large compared to others it has a wonderful variety of locally caught produce and is well worth a visit. Here is the best place to see Espada, but best arrive early in the morning as they tend to sell out by midday. To look at the fish in its raw state one would not call it a delicacy, it looks hideous and appears to be the most unlikely candidate for a good meal, large mouth and teeth, big eyes, jet black and about four foot long.

The real thing close up, don't let the show of teeth put you off, its actually smiling for the camera
Full size, the fishmonger has to bend the tail a bit to make it fit the slab

Though Madeira has many restaurants all selling a variety of excellent local fish the one thing they have in common is that they all sell the Espada. The fish has a soft flesh with a slightly sweet taste, almost to the point of being bland, which is why it is usually served with a banana on top, of all the times I have eaten it I have never found a single bone on my plate. The customary complement is local vegetables and always potatoes, thereby reducing the huge surplus mountain of the two commodities the island has in abundance, bananas and potatoes.

In good culinary style, here is one I ate earlier
And of course the article would not be complete without a picture of the final result

Having had a warm relaxing break for two weeks I now seriously need to get into production mode on the boat building side of life with a whole load of projects to achieve a water tight hull by next winter. Keep checking Duckworks Magazine for more on these in the coming months.

Click HERE for a list of articles by Mike Machnicki


To comment on Duckworks articles, please visit our forum