Octopus is one of the few meats improved by freezing. It can be rubbery when fresh, even when cooked with patience. Introducing it to a minus-zero temperature breaks down its obstinate cell structure, so I would advise freezing it before use if you know it is fresh – 48 hours should do the trick. Susanah, a tiny, twinkling Italian matriarch who has fed me often and well, presented a happy table with this dish on one of my holidays to Sardinia. Among her other delights were such things as dogfish cooked with its liver pounded with capers and a deep-fried moray eel (that had previously tried to bite my toe off). If she read my interpretation of her recipe she would probably frown, shake her head, wag her finger and say sharply: ‘No No No!’
Defrost the octopus legs, if necessary, before cutting them up, at a slant, into big mouth-sized chunks. Leave the last 8cm at the tip of each tentacle in one piece, as they look great rolled up like the ringmaster’s whip.
Chop the bulb of garlic horizontally through the middle and place both sides flesh-side-down in a heavy-based casserole into which you have poured the oil. Bring to a high heat until just before the oil begins to smoke. Throw in the onions and brown rapidly. At this point throw in the octopus; it should instantly sizzle, hiss and crackle loudly if the heat is correct. Push it around with a spoon. After 30 seconds, turn down the heat to very low. Squeeze in the lemon juice, add the bay leaves, thyme sprig and peppercorns, and cover with the lid. After a couple of minutes, peek inside and you will see that the tentacle pieces are now swimming in a delicious purple-pink juice given up from the meat and in which they will now stew. Gently simmer it for 1 hour and 45 minutes on this very low heat. While the occy stews, shell all the peas into a bowl.
When the time is up, test the octopus for tenderness. A knife should slide into the flesh with ease. If not, give it another 15 minutes or so. Throw in the peas and cook with the lid off the pot, as this will allow the sauce to reduce while the peas cook. (If using frozen peas, make sure that they are first properly defrosted, as you don’t want to introduce water back into the sauce you have been trying to reduce.)
After about 10 minutes, check the seasoning, then whisk in a generous knob of cold butter or alternatively pour over a good slug of extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle over with loosely chopped wild fennel leaves if you happen to have the plant growing nearby.
Try to enjoy without looking over your shoulder for the giant tentacle of mother coming to wreak hell on those who took her little one…