Is it terribly un-Kiwi of me to admit that I can’t stand oysters? The way they smell, they way they taste, the way they slither down your throat with slug-like viscosity… my stomach heaves. I’m not much moved by mussels either – too obvious. No subtlety to a mussel. And as much as I swoon for the milky sweetness of fresh scallops, they don’t return my love; after a few precious mouthfuls my throat constricts and my face acquires an ashen pallor. It never really bothered me much, but my best beloved threatens not to take me to A&E next time.
So for reasons of personal taste, and irksome anaphylaxis, I don’t much go in for the nation’s favourite shellfish. My heart belongs elsewhere, to an altogether less-glamorous creature – the inexplicably underrated New Zealand cockle (or to use its correct name, the little-neck clam). Strangely, while a few well-informed chefs have taken them to heart, cockles have yet to enter the local cooking consciousness. More’s the pity – and more for me I suppose.
I’ve been chasing and embracing cockles all my life, and seek them out in their various forms wherever I go – from sumptuous Char kway teow (fried flat noodles with clams and many other good things) in Singapore, to superb spaghetti alla vongole (clams with garlic, chilli and cherry tomatoes tossed through super-al dente spaghetti) in the south of Italy. But as wonderful as these are, it’s the simple, uncluttered cockle dishes of my formative years that really float my boat.
According to my mother, the shellfish beds of Cheltenham beach in Devonport were all that kept us fed during the leaner years of my childhood. She always says this with an edge of shame, as if resorting to foraged food was akin to neglect, yet as I have often told her, some of my fondest memories are of collecting seafood – cockles, crabs, pipi and flounder – as a family from ‘our’ beach, and of the wonderful meals that followed.
Of the many tasty morsels Cheltenham beach offered back then, cockles were my favourite – not to mention the most abundant. In my mother’s deft hands they were put to grand effect as fritters, soup, chowder, fried noodles, or simply steamed open and dressed with malt vinegar and finely chopped spring onion. I’m still a hopeless sucker for any of these, but if you really want to see me weak at the knees, whip me up a cockle sandwich. Nothing fancy either please, just guilty-pleasure white bread, lashings of molten garlic-butter, parsley, chilli and a gleeful heap of steamed and shucked cockles. It’s neither rarefied nor cutting edge stuff, but remains, for me, an evocative taste of a childhood by the sea.
The winey, iodine-flecked flavour of cockles loves the company of our pungent local garlic (as opposed to that bland, imported nonsense), and what seafood isn’t improved with a liberal dose of butter? You could use some artisanal sourdough bread, I suppose, but for me it would detract from the sheer of honesty of the dish. Only the whitest, doughiest processed pap will do. Call me perverse if you will, but such are the edicts of nostalgia.
The cockles of Cheltenham beach are all but gone now, decimated by overharvesting, and further purged by pollution and a fractured food chain. It’s a nice fantasy to imagine them regenerating for the feasting pleasure of future generations, but gloomy reality suggests otherwise. Gone is gone.
So for now, and perhaps it’s for the best, we must turn to our local fishmongers and supermarkets for sustainably harvested or farmed shellfish. And while these offer much in way of flavour and freshness, they do lack the special seasoning that comes from foraging on your local beach.
Garlic & Chilli Cockle Sandwiches
These should be fat with cockles, dripping with melted butter, and exquisitely messy to eat. Serve warm and preferably within sight and smell of the sea.
- 2 dozen live cockles (available from good supermarkets)
- 200 grams salted butter
- 2 tablespoons of thinly sliced fresh garlic
- ½ teaspoon of finely chopped dried chilli
- 1 teaspoon of roughly chopped flat-leafed parsley
- 4 slices white sandwich bread
- Steam open the cockles – either over a bbq grill, or in a covered pan with a splash of water or white wine. Discard any that decline to open.
- Drain and set aside the resulting juices or ‘liquor’.
- Using a teaspoon, scoop each cockle out of its shell and set aside. (Always return the shells to the sea or bury them in your garden. They don’t belong in a landfill.)
- Gently melt the butter in a pan. When completely melted add the garlic, stir briefly and remove from heat. Do NOT sauté.
- Toss the shelled cockles in the warm garlic butter. Add a few teaspoons of the cockle’ liquor’ (be careful to avoid any grit), the chopped parsley and chilli to taste. Stir until well amalgamated.
- Assemble the sandwiches, and don’t be stingy with the cockles. Eat at once.
Makes 2 sandwiches
Wash down with plenty of cold white wine.
And finally, while we’re talking about seafood and such, someone who knows a good deal more about it than just about anyone – a certain Rick Stein – is doing a series of live shows in Auckland and Wellington from August 4th – 8th. This is a very rare opportunity to see one of the world’s most-revered food aficionados and chefs live on stage. For more information and tickets to Rick Stein’s Food Odyssey, follow this link.
See you there…