Clam Digging and Shellfishing

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A good stretch of shoreline for clam digging and shellfishing.
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This typical offshore reef is a very rich source of a wide variety of seafoods, "free for the gathering."
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Cockle clams can be dug with a shovel, hoe, or rake.
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Legal-sized cockle clams fill the bucket very fast and are delicious when steamed.
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Measure the clams you dig, keep only those that are legal, and abide by all local regulations when harvesting shellfish.

Mmmm-MMMMI Clam chowder so rich that you can almost eat the
steam … mussels delicate enough in flavor to shame the
adjectives that are normally used to describe tastes ….

Is this the bill of fare for a $30 dinner? Nope, these
fancy foods are available “free for the takin’ ” to almost
anyone within range of an ocean. And it won’t
take days of digging to fill your kettle, either.

Best of all, no expensive equipment is necessary to harvest
your share of this seafood bounty. A good field guide (the
bible on this subject is still Stalking the Blue-Eyed
Scallop
by Euell Gibbons), a desire to spend the day
surrounded by the sounds and smells of the beach, and a
willingness to brave water, mud, and rocks will just
about do to get you started clam digging and shellfishing.

Since the variety of seafoods that can be gathered easily
is great–and since the methods of collection differ
from one critter to the next–it would be dang-nigh
impossible to describe everything about this particular
brand of wild food foraging in just one article. So, I’ll
tell you what my years of experience (and countless marine
biology courses) have taught me about tidal foraging in
this issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS and save the deeper water
species for another article. But let’s not waste time gabbin’ when
the sacks are empty!

The Bountiful Bivalves

Bivalves–mollusks with two hinged shells–make
up the bulk of my seashore scavengings simply because
they’re readily available and are awfully fine eating. Even
if you’re a novice forager, you can fill your belly without
difficulty on your first trip out if you concentrate on
this large group of edibles.

Before we get down to specifics, however, a few words of
caution are in order: Most mollusks feed by siphoning In
water and straining out and absorbing the small bits of
food (or anything else) that they happen to suck in with
the liquid. Which, unfortunately, means that–where
man has contaminated the water–these creatures can
become tiny storehouses of poison. ALWAYS MAKE SURE OF ITS
WATER PURITY THROUGH THE LOCAL HEALTH DEPARTMENT BEFORE
COLLECTING AND EATING BIVALVES FROM ANY BEACH, TIDAL FLAT,
ETC.

A call to the Fish and Game Department in the area–to
determine seasons, size and bag limits, and license
needs–is also a good idea. Local sporting goods
stores can sell you a permit (if one is needed). They
usually can supply you with a yearly tide table too, which will help you plan your expeditions around the
prime foraging times (from two hours before low tide till
two hours after).

Finally, NEVER EAT ANY SHELLFISH THAT ISN’T UNQUESTIONABLY
FRESH. A general rule is to discard each and every bivalve
that doesn’t resist your efforts to open its shell, or that
doesn’t close itself more tightly when touched.

Collecting Mussels

O.K., now that you’ve checked the purity of the water in
your area, protected yourself against the game warden, and
promised not to eat anything that wasn’t alive when you
found it … you’re probably eager to start fillin’ up
that of collection bag. And the quickest way to make the
sack bulge is with a passel of mussels.

Members of the genera Mytilus and Modiolus–mussels of
one variety or another–can be found along just about
any portion of the North American coastline, east or
west. Westerners should limit their gathering to a season
running from November through April, since–during the
rest of the year–the bivalves found in their area may
ingest microscopic dinoflagellates which can cause illness
in humans. And the old rule of thumb–only harvest
shellfish during months that contain an “r”–should do
quite nicely for folks on the East Coast.

Once the season begins, a sharpened tire iron or heavy
bladed knife and a gunnysack (I prefer a backpack lined
with a plastic bag. It keeps my hands free) will be
all the tools you’ll need to go musselin’.

Finding yourself a bed of delicious mollusks to dig into should present no problem, either. Just locate a rocky area
near the low tide line and–if mussels are present–you’ll be
hard pressed not to walk on ’em. My favorite “gatherin’
grounds” are upwards of a half mile long and composed of
clusters of tasty shellfish packed together like mosaic
tiles!

Obviously with colonies of this size and density, it’s an
easy matter to pry off enough (a dozen apiece will do for
most folks, two dozen will satisfy even the most voracious
consumer of seafood) for your eatin’ needs.

And while you’re foraging up those mussels, have a look
around the rocks for a clump of the long-stemmed,
white-shelled goose barnacles which–though they look like a
cross between a mushroom and a gander–are closely related
to crabs. These bizarre creatures (of the genus Mitella on
the West Coast and Lepas in the Atlantic) are lobster-like
in flavor and as easy as pie to collect. I just scrape the
black stems off of their rocky perches and try for a
compromise between getting the maximum amount of stalk with
the minimum of grit and sand!

I steam most of my catch right on the beach in a 30-gallon
army surplus kettle, and the barnacles get popped into the
water right along with my day’s mussel harvest. Their
white-shelled tops can be discarded after steaming, the
stems cut open, and finger-sized pieces of meat pried out.
Furthermore, since the taste of these dainties is akin to
that of the clawed crustaceans, goose barnacles can be
substituted in any recipe that calls for crab or lobster.

Those patches of gravel surrounding the masses of stone
(which harbored the barnacles) should be foraged too:
They’re often the homes of small clams and of several types
of mollusks called cockles.

That last name, by the way, probably should be clarified at
least a little before we proceed any further: On the
eastern seaboard “cockle” usually refers–more or less
accurately–to members of the genus Cardium. On the
Pacific Shore, however, the same term is applied to
mollusks of at least four different genera. This confusion
is seldom a problem, though, because in local usage
“cockle” most often seems to translate as “good eatin’
clam.” See what the area’s residents gather, double check
with your field guide (local prejudices often cause folks
to ignore delicious shellfish), then have a go at the
little bivalves on your own.

You’ll be thankful (as many a sore-backed digger has been)
that cockles have no breathing siphons at all and,
because of this inconvenience (to them), must limit their
belowground travel to within an inch or two of the sand’s
surface. A clam rake, hoe, or shovel should be the only
tool you’ll need to gather the tasty little rascals. However, due to the rocky nature of the sand in which
cockles are generally found, even a small amount of digging
will be anything but easy. (Remember, too–after you
straighten out the kinks and leave the seaside for the
day–that a freshwater rinse will greatly extend the
life of your foraging equipment. Perhaps it’ll make you
feel better, too!)

Large, Economy-Sized West Coast Clams

The Pacific Ocean is a powerful big body of water, and some
of the clams that inhabit its North American coastline are
nothing less than giants. The most common of these
monsters–found in mud and sand flats from Alaska to
San Diego–is the horse clam (Schizothaerus nuttalli).

It isn’t necessary to wait for a particularly low tide to
snare a few of these whoppers (they run all the way up to
four pounds each). The only real job–after you sight
the spouts from their squirt holes between the low and high
water marks–is diggin’ ’em out–even when
they’re spraying water three feet into the air, these clams
may well be buried another yard deep !n the sand. Dig the
giants out anyway. When properly cleaned and prepared,
they’re more than worth the effort.

I’ve found that the flavor of horse clams–and that of
other bivalves found in muddy sand–can be improved by
storing the shellfish alive in a large, shaded tub of
seawater (or in a cage sunk beneath the surface of the
ocean itself) for about 48 hours. If you then add cornmeal
to the water, you’ll fool the critters into replacing any
slit in their bodies with the grain. This simple treatment
will make most any bivalve taste better, and has let me
enjoy some species that the local diggers thought inedible.

No discussion of clams (at least here in California) would
be complete without a mention of the gismo. This, the
Golden State’s most famous mollusk (the shellfish is a
tourist attraction in its own right), is found in open
sandy areas from Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco, all the
way down to southern Mexico. Believe !t or not, the gismo
clam (genus Tivela) supports an entire digging industry complete with chauffeured boat rides to prime beaches and
shoreside equipment rentals. Unfortunately, the gismo’s
population–despite rigid size and bag limits–is
on the decline in popular clamming areas. It should be
looked upon as a special occasional treat, then, rather
than a reliable source of wild food. Better yet,
concentrate on the more common varieties of bivalves and
thus do your bit toward giving this surf dweller a chance
to reestablish itself.

On the Way to the Table

As I’ve already noted, I generally steam a large percentage
of the seafood I forage alongshore within yards of where I
find it. I chow down my fill right on the spot, and pack
the remainder of the cooked meat in single dinner-sized
plastic bags, ready for the freezer and future soups
and chowders.

As you probably know, steaming is the simplest form of
seafood cookery imaginable. A little water (or perhaps some
white wine for a flavor treat)–just enough to cover
the bottom of the pot and not boil completely away …
certainly not enough to cover the food that’s being
prepared–in a kettle with a close-fitting lid are all
you need to do the job. Clams and mussels will be done when
the shells open wide (after approximately twenty minutes of
steaming) … and barnacles will be ready when the clams
are. When these cookouts become group parties, I always take along a couple loaves of French bread, a pound or
two of butter, and sufficient wine to wash everything
down. What could be simpler? Or tastier?

Still, that’s only the most basic form of shellfish
preparation. A little variety can be welcome from
time to time (especially if you forage the beaches as often
as I do). The following recipes from the book Stalking the
Blue-Eyed Scallop
by Euell Gibbons are reprinted here with the permission of the David
McKay Co., Inc., and should satisfy the most discriminating
epicureans:

Clam Chowder

Cut 1 large onion and about 4 slices of bacon into small
bits and fry them together until the onion is golden yellow
and translucent. Then add 2 cups of diced potatoes, cover
everything with water, and boll until the spuds are done.
While the potatoes are still cooking steam 2 dozen clams
(more or less, depending upon their size and how many you
have) and–after steaming–grind their meat in a food
chopper. This clam meat and broth from the steaming kettle
are then added to the chowder. Immediately pour in a quart
of milk, 1 teaspoon of monosodium glutamate (I don’t know
why Gibbons used this seasoning, but he did. Leave it
out if you want to), and 1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground
black pepper. While the mixture is heating (only to a
simmer), blend 1 tablespoon of flour into 1/4 cup of milk,
slowly add the solution to the chowder, and continue to
stir until the soup slightly thickens. Try to avoid boiling
the rich brew after the milk has been added, but do simmer
it gently for 10 minutes after adding the thickening. Serve
the steaming chowder (ambrosia!) with crackers on the side.

Stuffed Mussels

Scrub (with a stiff vegetable brush or its equivalent) and
steam open 4 dozen mussels, remove their meat, and chop it
into coarse bits. Then dice one medium-sized onion and
saute it in butter until it turns a clear yellow. Add 1
tablespoon of chopped parsley, 1/4 teaspoon of poultry
seasoning, and 1 1/2 cups of bread crumbs. Cook the mixture
(stirring it constantly) for about 2 minutes before
removing it from the heat.

After you’ve taken the pot off the fire, stir In the
chopped mussels and enough of the broth from the steaming
kettle to dampen the bread crumbs slightly.
And–finally–mix everything together, fill 2
dozen of the empty half-shells with the mixture, arrange
the shells on a cookie sheet, and put them in the broiler
until the tops of the stuffing have lightly browned. Then
serve up the stuffed mussels while they’re still sizzling!

Goose Barnacles Newburg

If you want an absolutely perfect Barnacle Newburg, you
have to prepare it in a double boiler. First, put the top
(only) of the boiler over a low direct heat and use It to
melt 1 tablespoon of butter. Then blend 1 tablespoon of
flour into the butter. When this mixture has started to
brown, set the double boiler top on its bottom section and
finish cooking the blend over boiling water. Next add 1 cup
of coffee cream and 2 or 3 dozen steamed barnacle stems
(depending on their size). Cook for 10 minutes, add 2
wellbeaten egg yolks, and then cook and stir for another 2
minutes. Finally, add 1 /2 teaspoon of salt, a tiny pinch
of cayenne, and 2 tablespoons of cooking sherry. Stir well
again, and serve over toast. A bottle of dry white wine
will go very well with this dish.

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