Rob Firing is obsessed with seafood, whelks in particular. Here is his first piece for Swallow in a new series on seafood.
Five years ago on Brighton Pier in England I met a man selling something packed in 2-cup containers, beside a pile of lemons. “They’re whelks, sir.” I bought one container (£3.00), squeezed a wedge of lemon over them and dug in. They were fresh and nutty and tasted like clam, crab, and the rocky shore. I was utterly transported, and bought another two containers to take with me, vowing to return the next day, the next year, and pretty much as often as I could.
This turned out to be harder than I thought, working and living as I do in Toronto. But last May I did return to Brighton, staying close by at a cousin’s house in Shoreham-by-Sea. My cousin had heard about my whelk obsession, and, known to be something of a food adventurer herself – she used to cook meals for crews on tour with acts like Elton John and Duran Duran – offered to set me up with a whelking boat in the English Channel, where I could see the catch first hand.
It didn’t work out, but she did bring me at least to the fishermen who pulled in the catch. We bought as many live whelks as we could carry and kept them alive in her fridge to eat through the week.
“Whelk” can refer to any number of unrelated animals of roughly the same shape, but the whelks most commonly eaten, and the ones I ate in Brighton and Shoreham, were a particular kind of sea snail of the species Buccinum undatum. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans calls them waved whelks. They have been a source of food in Europe and Asia for centuries. The British export hundreds of tons of them to South Korea every year, where they are a common canned and frozen grocery item. You can find them on the menus of higher-quality French restaurants as “bulots,” often served cold, in their handsome shells. And they are regaining some of their popularity in the UK, as the growing local food movement continues its course.
I’ve since tried my hand at preparing whelks in several ways – they are remarkably forgiving and versatile in that regard – and I’ve eaten them more or less unadulterated in restaurants in France, served on ice as the respected actor-in-a supporting-role to oysters and langoutines. I thought it odd that I’d barely heard of them back in Canada, even after many trips (not whelk related ) to Halifax and other destinations Down East. So I asked my favourite fish monger, a man named Gregor Lerche, who, with his wife Jennifer Johnston, runs Fisherfolk, bringing in some of Canada’s most interesting, sustainable fresh catch. I spoke to him about whelks (called snotwinkles on the East Coast) at Wychwood Barns Farmers’ Market in Toronto:
Rob: Does anyone actually eat whelks in North America?
Gregor: Canadian snotwinkles are mainly exported to Europe and Asia, and there is a smaller export market to the United States. Here in Canada there are people who enjoy them but they are not as prevalent on the menus as overseas.
Rob: Do you think there might be a future market for whelks as a legitimate catch on this side of the Atlantic? What would it take?
Gregor: Absolutely. There is a growing market for snotwinkles right here in Canada. Our cuisine is always evolving and incorporating more and more great Canadian seafood. As long as people can get over eating a big snail from the ocean and appreciate the tasty experience it will bring, more and more Canadians will be enjoying them.
Rob: Are they actually as common in our waters as they are in Europe’s, and could they be sustainably harvested?
Gregor: They are found all over Newfoundland and Labrador, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy. Just ask any lobsterman (or crab fisher) how many snotwinkles were in their pots stealing bait. I threw lots of them back into the Atlantic while banding lobsters at sea this year. Like all fish and seafood within its jurisdiction, Canada strictly regulates the harvest of snotwinkles, ensuring sustainability.
Rob: What kinds of whelks are there on the East Coast? I hear the Asian whelk has made its way into the US east coast and is even threatening oyster beds there, having no known predators. Is this a concern in Canada?
Gregor: The East coast is populated with buccinum undatum, the same ones found across the pond in the UK. Unfortunately it is true that the Asian whelk, or rampana venosa, is in Chesapeake Bay and it is having a negative effect on the local clam, oyster and shellfisheries, and there is always concern about invasive species in Canadian waters because the havoc they wreak.
Fisherfolk are open for business every Friday at their retail location, and every Saturday at both the Brickworks and Wychwood Barns markets. They are bringing in live whelks from the East Coast from May to July this year, as a pilot project. You can also buy whelks frozen at some Asian supermarkets. I’ve tried those. They’re okay, but not nearly as nice as fresh ones, and I couldn’t tell you where they come from.
Here are two recipes, one in-the-shell and one out. We served them with buttered brown rice, sauteed “sea cabbage” which very closely resembles rapini, and “wild spinach” (which looked exactly like its domestic relative), both of which grew along the pebble beaches in Shoreham, foraged by my adventurous cousin.
Whelks in the Shell with Garlic Butter
A dozen live whelks
Stick of unsalted butter
Cup of fresh italian parsley, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon, cut in wedges
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Rinse whelks in their shells and submerge in a pot of boiling salty water – it should taste like sea water. Boil for 30 minutes, drain and let cool. With a small fork or skewer, remove the whelk from the shell – it should pop out fairly easily. Remove the cuticle – the brown trap-door like thing at the top of the whelk. It comes off easily with a little pinch. Discard this and also the pasty waste sack at the bottom of the whelk. It sometimes breaks off and will stay inside the shell. If that’s the case, give the shell a shake and it should fall out. Rinse the shells inside and out and set them aside.
Meanwhile, melt butter, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper together in a saucepan and let it bubble for a minute. Turn off the heat and drop in the whelks, coating them with the garlic butter. Put the whelks back in their shells and place in the oven in a cast iron skillet for five to ten minutes, until they are warmed through. Pour as much of the remaining garlic butter over the whelks as you like, squeeze on a wedge of lemon or two, and serve in the skillet with a hunk of good bread. Serves 4 as a starter.
Chopped Whelk and Chilis with Lemon Grass in DIY Lettuce Wrap
A dozen live whelks
Peanut or grapeseed oil
A few sprigs of lemon grass, pounded and cut into thirds (or just large enough so you can remove it later from the other ingredients)
1 fresh red chili pepper, thinly sliced
2 cups of chopped cilantro
Juice and zent of half a lime
Handful of chopped peanuts
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
A medium bowl of rice vermicelli noodles or even ramen noodles, prepared ahead
Sturdy lettuce, leaves separated, but left whole (for wrapping). Green-leaf lettuce works well
Prepare whelks as above without the garlic butter (and don’t put them back in their shells). Dice them instead, and sauté in peanut or grapeseed oil with the lemon grass, chili pepper, lime and zest, hoisin and peanuts. Remove the lemon grass as best you can and discard – my adventurous cousin actually buys it pulverized into tiny bits and keeps it in the dish, to great effect. You can try that if you can get the lemon grass to a fine grade.
Throw the chopped cilantro on top and toss lightly when you are ready to eat. Serve with the lettuce leaves and the noodles and have your guests fill them just like a taco. Have extra hoisin on the side, or some of Naomi Duguid’s hot-sour-salty-sweet. Serves 4 as most of a meal.