Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The legendary Paignton cockles (and some recipes…)

I grew up in Paignton in South Devon and was always attracted to the sea, although only occasionally went swimming as I was more interested in walking along the beach to look at what had been washed up by the waves and tides. After the severe winter of 1962/63, I remember that the first storms brought masses of shells ashore, after the very low temperatures had killed a large number of molluscs (the sea froze in a few places). Although there were many common cockles, there were also some more unusual cockle shells, including those of the red-nosed cockle (below, upper) and the spiny cockle (below, lower). These species made Paignton Beach (shown above) famous in Victorian times, as their distribution around the coast of Great Britain is very local, the spiny cockle being largely confined to the shallow sandy sediments of the western part of Torbay.

Lovell wrote this about the red-nosed cockle (as Cardium rusticum) and spiny cockle (as Cardium aculeatum) in 1867 [1]:

[The red-nosed cockle].. ..is rare and local in England. It is found on the Devonshire coast, at Paignton, and occasionally at Dawlish, and at certain times of the year, especially in the spring after a gale from the east, numbers may be gathered. On paying a visit to the Paignton sands, for the purpose of shell collecting, in the spring of 1862, the beach was quite strewn with broken single valves of this cockle, and there had evidently been quantities of live specimens washed up as well, as we met many persons returning home with their baskets heavily laden with them..

.. There is another cockle found also at Paignton, which is even more scarce than Cardium rusticum, viz. Cardium aculeatum; it is larger and not so solid, with long spines on each rib, and is of a pale brownish-pink or flesh colour. It is very good to eat.

Lovell then describes the “Paignton method of cooking the red-nosed cockle” by frying them in a batter of breadcrumbs after they have been kept in clean water for a few hours to remove sand and other unwanted particles. We’ll come to more recipes later, but first a quote from Philp Henry Gosse, who lived in Torquay and knew the Torbay coast well. In his book A Year at the Shore (1865) Gosse writes [2]:

What is that object that lies on yonder stretch of sand, over which the shallow water ripples, washing the sand around it and presently leaving it to dry? It looks like a stone; but there is a fine scarlet knob on it; which all of a sudden has disappeared. Let us watch the moment of the receding wave, and run out to it.

It is a fine example of the great spinous cockle, for which all these sandy beaches that form the bottom of the great sea-bend of Torbay are celebrated. Indeed the species is scarcely known elsewhere; so that it is often designated in books as the Paignton cockle.. ..The creatures have not changed their habits nor their habitats, for they are still to be seen in the old spots just as they were a century ago: nor have they lost their reputation; they are indeed promoted to the gratification of more refined palates now, for the [Paignton] cottagers, knowing on which side their bread is buttered, collect the sapid cockles for the fashionables of Torquay, and content themselves with the humbler and smaller species.

For those who do not have access to the red-nosed, or spiny, cockles that the “fashionables of Torquay” were able to enjoy, the common cockle (Cardium edule) is still excellent to eat. They can be obtained from cockle “fisheries” in several estuaries, among the best being those from Penclawdd in Wales, where the shellfish are collected using hand rakes, rather than by more aggressive approaches. Cockles are gathered into sieves, washed to clean as much mud as possible from the shells, and then tipped into sacks for easy transport. There is much less occasional foraging than in Victorian times, although John Wright encourages us in his book Edible Seashore [3], in which he describes many edible plants and animals from both the landward and seaward parts of the shore. He recommends that cockles should not be collected during the summer months as this is when they spawn, but they are at their best through September and October.

Wright gives an excellent recipe for cooking cockles with chorizo, although they can be cooked using many of the recipes for clams [3]. Cockles with chorizo is easy to prepare: make sure that the cockles have had a chance to “clean themselves” in sea water overnight and then add them to a pot in which small pieces of chorizo have been sautĂ©ed to release their oil, with the addition of a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Cover and cook until the shells open, garnish with parsley and then serve like mussels, with crusty bread to mop up the juices. If you are interested, further recipes are given below [4,5].

Should there be an excess of cleaned cockles, they can be prepared by placing them in a hot pan and then teasing the cockles away from their shells and placing them in a jar with just enough malt vinegar to cover. Pickled cockles will keep much longer than fresh cockles and they make a delightful snack at any dinner party (but make sure that they have had a chance to clean themselves of sand and silt…).

Do any readers out there, and especially those from Paignton, want to collect and cook cockles, or are you somehow put off by the thought?

[1] M. S. Lovell (1867) The Edible Mollusks of Great Britain and Ireland with recipes for cooking them. London, Reeve & Co.

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) A Year at the Shore. London, Alexander Strahan.

[3] John Wright (2009) Edible Seashore: River Cottage Handbook No.5. London, Bloomsbury Publishing.

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