In the 1930s, sacks of Wells-next-the-Sea whelks were transported all over the country by rail. Even now, railways long gone, Wells in Norfolk is still the whelk capital of the world. When author Henry Williamson, in his Story of a Norfolk Farm, wanted a pseudonym for the little town nearest his farm, he gave it the name of its best-known export, Whelk.
So, it would be silly to ignore these creatures when composing our menu at the Moorings of Wells-next-the-Sea.
Whelks are usually sold from shellfish stalls ready-cooked: a long and rubbery chew. But European Union regulations have led to their becoming more readily available, live in their shells, rather than overcooked in smelly water.
While it is true that large whelks can have a slightly rubbery texture, smaller whelks, simmered for 10 minutes in court bouillon, or in liquid with an American-style “crab boil” combination of herbs and spices become as succulent and interesting as any other shellfish.
Besides whelks, cockles and winkles are usually considered to be the lowest rung on the snakes-and-ladders board of culinary snobbery. I’ve heard them sneered at as “peasant food” or “snacks for day trippers”.
How many times have you heard that derogatory expression: “Couldn’t even run a whelk stall”?
Speaking as someone who has run a whelk stall, it’s more complicated than you might think. Selling edible shellfish to the public, with all the dangers of perishability, hygiene, the variabilities of supply attendant on tides and weather, as well as the inevitable demands made by customers, make this a far from simple task.
And yet, some foreigners and even a few writers rave about these shellfish. In the Independent, the late food writer Jeremy Round raved about a particular dish of Chinese-style whelks he had tried. In her collection of recipes from East Anglia, Grannies Kitchen, food writer Sheila Hutchins praised cockles. Euell Gibbons, who started the first “Food for Free” craze in the 1960s in the USA, devoted space to collecting and cooking cockles in Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop.
Across the Channel, cockles particularly are given more serious culinary attention. For example, in Normandy there is a simple and tasty cockle soup made with cockles, their juice, finely sliced leeks and julienned carrots. It is thickened with beurre manié and cräme fraŒche, seasoned with white pepper and garnished with lots of parsley and a dusting of cayenne.
A gratin of cockles is found in the Vendée region, which is adjacent to Brittany. There, cockles are opened, left in half-shells, then reheated in butter, cream, garlic and parsley.Further down the Atlantic coast, the Portuguese use cockles in some of their most memorable dishes. Cockles are combined with pork chops, pimentoes, white wine and garlic in the memorable Lombo de Porco con Ameijoas. Brilliant!
In France, cockles, whelks and winkles are usually present in the huge mixed-seafood platters featured in fish restaurants, often accompanied by mayonnaise and shallot vinaigrette. At the Phaisanderie, an elegant Michelin-starred restaurant in Arras, Pas-de-Calais, whelks are cooked and finely sliced then warmed up in a hottish chilli and tomato sauce spiked with a few strips of pimento and a little coriander seed. These are served in little ramekins as an amuse-gueule.
Despite our apparent neglect of whelks from a culinary standpoint, they have recently doubled in price as the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese believe they have aphrodisiac qualities.
References by a few shellfish fans about the Oriental combination of whelks with black bean sauce led me to experiment. I think I’ve cracked it and have shared the recipe with Chef readers. It would probably also work well with strips of large, toughish squid.
When whelks are cooked, they are easily prised out of their shells with a skewer. The “worm”, the long digestive tract from the mouth to the anus, is easily removed. There is a small toenail-like horn at the entry to the shell, which is also easily discarded. Cooked properly, whelks are sweet and tender, and can be sliced into smaller segments.
Cockles are a native version of their foreign cousins, clams. They have a similar succulent marine taste and, unlike most bivalves, when purchased live in their shells, are easily cleaned. They are common, cheap and in season all year round. Being small, though, they can be fiddly to deal with. Shelling them can be tedious and can upset delicate skin – so it is advisable to wear gloves.
Again, unlike most other bivalves and happily for us, cockles are easily fooled. A mixture of sea salt and tap water (3-4tbs per litre of water) will deceive them into opening up and shedding their sand.
This method doesn’t work for most shellfish except cockles and the brittle gaper clams found along our coast. To clean other shellfish, it is best to use sea water. Wash in running water first, drain well and leave to soak in a wide plastic bowl filled with sea water, undisturbed for several hours. Tap the bowl gently.
The shellfish will close after having discharged the sand and dirt in their shells. Gently empty out the now gritty water. Then wash the shellfish again vigorously under a running cold tap. They are now ready to cook.
No matter what anyone suggests, throwing flour or oatmeal over shellfish will do nothing to clean them. Shellfish dwell in the sea, requiring its water to feed and excrete. There isn’t any flour or porridge in the waters where these creatures purge themselves naturally.
To open cleaned cockles, place a couple of layers in the bottom of a saucepan. Cover it with a lid, and bring rapidly to the boil. The shells will open. Any that have remained shut should be discarded as they inevitably contain closely packed sand and grit.
Don’t open too many at a time. Reserve their salty, sea-flavoured juice when they are open. Discard their shells and strain the cooking juice and use it to rinse the deshelled, cooked shellfish. Strain the juice again if you wish to use it for cooking. Your cockles are now ready to serve.
Refrigerated, they will last for three or four days. They will also freeze well, though will become dried out and slightly altered in taste if left too long.
Cockles are successful grilled in parsley and garlic butter with a breadcrumb gratin. They are just as good served cold, with shallot vinaigrette, brown bread and butter. Served in a salad with garlic, sliced peppers, lime, coriander and chilli, the taste of cockles is robust enough to stand up to the rest of the ingredients.
A popular recipe at the Moorings is cockle pie made with a simple cream sauce, gratinéed with buttered brown breadcrumbs. The original recipe is a New England speciality made with fresh Cherrystone clams. However, since many of the original colonists of New England came from East Anglia, I’ve often wondered if the original version, made with cockles, was simply adapted in the new country, with the nearest equivalent ingredients.
Carla Phillips heads the kitchen at the Moorings restaurant, which she runs with her husband, Bernard.
The Moorings, 6 Freeman Street, Wells-next-the-Sea, north Norfolk. Tel: 01328 710949.