Monday, April 11, 2011

Sea snails, slow food.

Last week it was brown shrimps, crevettes grises as they are rather unattractively called in French.  This week, emboldened by the delight of Friday night seafood suppers, things in shells with brown bread and butter washed down with white wine, I bought a bagful of winkles, bigorneaux, from the fish van.

Winkles were one of my maternal grandfather's favourite foods.  He was a Norwich man, it was said that if you walked down the streets of Norwich on a sunny Sunday afternoon when the house doors and windows were open, you could hear the rattle of the winkles being poured onto plates.  He was also a great sea and fly fisherman, and a racing cyclist, quite a star in his day - the very early years of the 20th century.  We all, in my family, still have silverware and other treasures that he won.  I never knew him.  What, I asked my mum, did winkles taste like?  More or less of the salt and pepper and vinegar he put on them, she said.

They feature, of course, on the big fancy platters of fruits de mer, every kind of seafood served on crushed ice in restaurants or ordered specially and taken home to form the centrepiece of the Christmas or New Year's Eve late night meal in these parts.  I have to say I never fancy these; the idea of chill winter evenings of protracted festivities, eating cold seafood off crushed ice, makes me feel shivery and tired just to think about.  Festive food for winter should, to my mind, be hot and rich and spicy, not chilly and slippery.

So somehow, the years of my life rolled by and though at one time or another I tried cockles and whelks and clams, and of course mussels and oysters, I never got around to eating winkles. That is until a bit over a year ago, at young Anaïs's leaving do with her family before she headed off to Mexico for a university exchange year, when Grandad came up from Loctudy in south Finistere with a huge quantity of very small winkles as his contribution to the feast which were passed round the assembled gathering before dinner in a single big dish.  There were a pile of wooden cocktail sticks, and one or two pins to get them out of the shells.  Tom showed me how; they'd been a regular teatime feature of his east London childhood too, though he'd not had them for a very long time.  The small wiggly grey things didn't look too appetising, but they tasted good, and the real pleasure was in the conviviality: old folks and children and cool teenagers with their heads together nattering while twizzling the little shellfish out of their spiral shells at impressive speed, a mobile, shared focus of food and reminiscence.

'Hey, Lucy' asked Jean-Jacques, 'is it right that the English word for bigorneau is a word for a little boy's zizi?'

I confirmed this, having mentioned it to Anais about five years previously, when it had amused her greatly; obviously something of all those English lessons went in.

Then in our visits to Finistère over the last year or so, winkles have often been part of of the plates of seafood which we've shared in places like the Café du Port at Le Dourduff, warm and busy with wooden tables and paper menus for mats.  So why not, I thought,  buy some on my foray to the fish van of a Friday lunchtime, along with some big pink prawns - no brown shrimps available today - and have them at home?

I peeled the prawns, and deveined them (which French acquaintances in particular think I'm bonkers to do, along with de-choking artichokes before I serve them - do I have too much time on my hands or something?),  spread the brown bread and butter, dolloped out some fish rillettes on the side and made up some garlic mayonnaise.  I put the winkles in their own little bowls and we sat down to eat.  I put out cocktail sticks.  The first winkle I poked didn't seem to have anything in it I could get at.  I picked up another.  Tom looked up from his.

'It just went back into its shell,' he said balefully 'they're still alive.'

I took them away quickly and we made do with the prawns and rillettes.

After supper, I looked them up in Jenny Baker's Simply Fish , one of those books the internet will never replace despite its showing its age, being yellowed and food-spattered and containing far too many recipes involving tinned tomatoes.  It's out of print now, and too old-fashioned to merit a reprint, but the format is simple and not to be bettered for information - each fish, shellfish, marine arthropod or crustacean is listed alphabetically with the same headings for all of them, including 'How sold' and 'Ask fishmonger'. Under the first heading for winkles it said 'Cooked', under the second 'Whether they are alive or cooked'.  The first response went some way towards mitigating my sense of stupidity about not doing the second.

Following the instructions I found there, I put them in a bowl of salted water to clean, which I changed a couple of times, and left them for the next day.

Winkles must be nocturnal, the only time they showed signs of being active was when I came down first thing the next morning, and some of them were emerging slightly from their shells, and one or two had fixed themselves to the side of the bowl, but still under the water.  Could have been worse, in one on-line forum I read about preparing shellfish, someone told a tale about leaving some whelks in the sink to clean overnight and how they were picking them off the kitchen tiles and surfaces for days afterwards.  Even so, I felt a qualm or two, and momentarily entertained the notion, since we were heading up toward the coast that day anyway, of taking them with us and liberating them in a rockpool somewhere.

But I rapped myself over the knuckles and told myself not to be idiotic and a wretched hypocrite. Someone had spent precious time gathering these, a fact which had been reflected in the price, and I frequently eat far more sophisticated creatures without worrying when someone else has killed them for me.  So I changed the water a couple more times, then prepared a court bouillon with water and white wine, a clove of garlic, salt, a bay leaf and half a lemon, dropped them into it, and brought it to the boil.  After a few minutes I tested one or two, then drained and cooled them.

More garlic mayo, this time with a spoonful of sun-dried tomato paste in it, and one of Tartapain's wonderful light, oily, crusty guilettes.  I raided the sewing box for the cutlery.

Absolutely delicious.  I shall buy and cook them again.  For two pins, I'd go foraging and collect them myself.


Zhoen said...

But... then you'd need two more pins.

marja-leena said...

Very amusing and interesting. Sounds like an awful lot of work - one can go hungry just picking the stuff out. I guess I'm a lazy cook and diner both.

Barrett Bonden said...

With assiette de fruits de mer winkles are the time adjuster: if you've spent too much lunch hour eviscerating, cracking and prising, and you're covered with scales, bits of broken shell and traces of sea-weed you can give 'em a miss. In any case that pin thing with the triangular handle is inefficient and I keep on meaning to design its super-dooper Anglo replacement. But if you're in the mood for further quiet contemplation you can set to. Alive? Of course! Tom should have retired to the Channel Islands. However my main reservation concerns the little black trapdoor and its enormous powers of hanging on to the eating process. You think you've got rid of it but, no, it's lurking on the inside of your thumb and your next act of gustation will transfer it to your mouth. Only thin people regularly eat winkles.

Fire Bird said...

'made up some garlic mayonnaise' 'prepared a court bouillon'
I am seriously impressed with your cooking skills these says - raw winkle episode notwithstanding... who knew they were sold alive??

Fire Bird said...

that's these *days*

Rosie said...

I love them. They taste unexpectedly savoury, almost marmitey...I must be obsessed with yeast at the moment!

Alison said...

Oh Lucy, what a wonderful post. Reading about food this way, the way you're writing about it, always calms and soothes me. Thanks for this.

Nimble said...

So do the French diners just crunch the dirty/sandy veins up with their shrimp? Or do they perform surgery with their silverware on each one before eating it?

I didn't realize winkles were snail shaped, I thought they were like smaller whelks. I applaud your resolve to cook them.

marly youmans said...


I often war on adverbs, but that one was just right.

Your blog just gets better.

Lucy said...

Thanks all!

Yes, those little doors, we kept finding them on the floor, looking up at us like eyes.

Our next project is to acquire some proper winkle pins, offers of any of superior design gratefully received.

The prawn veins are not generally very gritty or bothersome, the prawns are perhaps smaller than American ones and farmed in conditions that eliminate any very coarse contents, so it's quite possible to eat them with them left in. However, knowing that 'vein' is actually a euphemism for 'intestine', and that poisoning can still occasionally occur, I am rather fastidious about them.

I am continually - oops - trying to give up adverbs, (or at least those of manner ending in 'ly', those of time and place are less easy to avoid and on the whole less irksome) but I just can't help myself... ;~)