Samui Wining & Dining
Catch of the Day

You’ve got to be pretty sharp if you want to catch a razor clam!

 

2-3What’s the connection between doughnuts, dimples and keyholes? Why do people walk along the waterline whacking the sand with shovels? And exactly what is spitting jets of water back at the whackers? When you see some guy face down and with one arm up to the shoulder in the wet sand, what’s he doing? And why does the State of Washington have special agents watching all these people? Well, if you didn’t have the title at the top to help you out, I’d be feeling pretty smug right now. But as it is you’ll get the answers soon enough!

      Actually, the razor clam is one of the more tasty examples of what generally comes under the heading of seafood. Even so, it’s something of a speciality and not particularly popular or sought after, except by a narrow and enthusiastic fanatical fringe. Traditional local customs seem to have caused an international hotspot on America’s north-western coast. Here the clam craze hits a frenzy in the spring and summer vacation periods, with sometimes more than 1,000 ‘clammers’ concentrated along one mile of beach.

      Unfortunately the same local traditions dictate that the clams should be caught by chasing after them with a shovel, which destroys ten times more than are caught. Hence the concerns about conserving the species in that part of the world.

      The razor clam is really quite odd. For a start, it’s one of nature’s little quirks. It was seemingly first discovered by early settlers in America, in the 18th century (although no doubt the native population were well aware of it long before this). And by all accounts this was the only known place on earth it occurred – hence its zoological name, Ensis Americanus. But, somewhere in the early 1980s, it suddenly appeared along the coast of the Elbe Estuary in Germany. From there it spread rapidly to temperate coastlines across all of Europe. Initially its appearance came as a surprise, but biologists have deduced that ocean-going vessels are in the habit of taking on water as ballast and then jettisoning this later. And some of the larvae of the American razor clams must have decided to take a bit of a trip in this manner.

       Because of its isolated evolution, it also contradicts both the shape and habits of the rest of the clam and mollusc family. Its other relatives are normally big, flat and roundish and tend to sit on the bottom of the sea or hang around on rocks. The razor clam is slim, flat and long (sometimes up to ten inches, although six or seven is more usual). It’s shaped very much like an old-fashioned cut-throat razor, hence its name. And it burrows itself vertically into the sand in shallow waters, coming half-way up and out of its hole to feed.

       It does share two family traits however. The first is that its muscular structure holds the two halves of its shell together, causing them to open and close. And the other is its ‘foot’. This sticks out of the front and is used to both dig itself into the sand and also to anchor itself there. Over time this has developed into something quite substantial, and it’s amazing just how fast these clams can dig. In shallow tidal bays, when the sea recedes, there’s plentiful evidence of the presence of these clams. They leave a clear access hole, either flat like a keyhole, slightly raised like a doughnut or concave, like a dimple. And this is where the fun begins.

      American razor clammers traditionally opt for either the spade or the tube. The clams are sensitive to vibration and react by expelling a jet of water up through their burrow to shoo away predators. It may well give pause to some of the more timid crabs, but a big beefy clammer who’s thumping away at the wet sand with his shovel is in there like a shot. Wet sand is heavy, like thick moist cement. And the clams can actually burrow down faster and deeper than the clammers can dig. Which is why, in the race to dig the little fellows out, most of them are chopped into unusable chunks by clumsy spading. Hence the curious law that is firmly enforced by Washington State officials – you have to keep your first 15 clams, no matter how messed up they are.

       However the less macho clammers have succumbed to the sophistication of the ‘tube’. Basically this is a state-of-the-art capped-off length of plastic drainpipe, with one end open and with the capped end having a cork in it. Cork out, and rock and wiggle it downwards over the dimple/doughnut/whatever. Cork in, and wiggle it back up again, complete with tube of sand containing one annoyed razor clam. If no clam, then repeat. In a way one has to chuckle. Because all it actually takes is one small bottle of salt. Pour a little into the hole and wait for the clam to emerge rapidly, vertically, looking for all the world like a giant squeezed blackhead.

      Razor clams are simplicity itself to prepare and cook. Pour boiling water over them until the shells pop open and then immediately transfer them to cold water so they don’t begin to toughen. Remove any parts (the digestive tract etc.) that are a dark colour, by simply using scissors. Grill or barbecue them in their shells until they just begin to brown. Add butter, a touch of pepper, and garlic or herbs to taste. And that’s it.

      Unfortunately razor clams don’t do too well in tropical waters; it’s just too warm. So you won’t see any in the local markets. But you know how adventurous good chefs can be. And, if you hunt around a bit, you’re certain to find imported razor clams on the menu in one or two of the more up-market restaurants – but you’ll need to keep a razor-sharp eye out for them!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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