An undervalued yet delicious native shellfish
Even the word ‘cockles’ is an evocative one, invoking the Kentish seaside, children’s nursery rhymes, jars atop bars in East End boozers—and the phrase ‘warming your cockles’ is perhaps second only to the notion of having a cuppa when it comes to comforting English propositions. These days, however, cockles are way down the list when it comes to popular edible shellfish—a trend that baffles Borough’s fishmongers.
“Clams are hugely popular, particularly with our Mediterranean customers, and cockles are very similar, yet there doesn’t seem to be as much demand for them,” says Peter at Furness Fish and Game. Fortunately for us, however, this means these delicious little saline gems are particularly economical—not to mention sustainable.
“There are strict rules about when and how you can catch them,” Darren at Shellseekers Fish & Game explains, “which gives them a chance to breed and for the stock to regenerate.” While traditionally hand plucked from the shallow sandy shores, they are now more commonly caught using a method called hand dredging, which involves dipping a shopping basket-like bucket into the sea, off small inshore fishing boats. “This means there’s minimal environmental impact.”
Once brought ashore, the shellfish undergo a strict cleaning process in which they are ‘purged’ of bad bacteria and unclean water using UV lights, for a minimum of 42 hours—rendering any old associations with seafood sickness redundant. “They’re very safe to eat,” Darren says reassuringly.
Beautiful, deeply-ridged shells
Cockles, like clams, are bivalve molluscs, meaning they have two shells attached by an exterior hinge. They’re distinguished by their beautiful, deeply ridged shells, within which sits a pale pearl of tasty, delicate flesh. Darren gets his from Poole, “the second largest natural harbour in the world. It’s famed for its cockles.”
You’ll find them preserved in brine, ready to be pepped up with vinegar and gobbled immediately—or (if you can wait to get them home) rolled in corn flour, coriander seeds, salt and crushed peppercorns and deep fried to make cockle popcorn.
You’ll also find them sold fresh, still alive in their shells. These can be used in any number of classic seafood dishes—bouillabaisse, fruits de mer—or as an economical alternative to clams. “They’re interchangeable,” says Peter.
Beca Lyne-Pirkis likes to sauté hers with shallots, garlic, parsley and white wine, tossed through linguine, or for something more adventurous, try Globe Tavern head chef Luke Hawkins’ recipe for cockles with lemon sole and samphire—a seasonal seafood feast.