Samui Wining & Dining
Catch of the Day

Shelling out on cockles.

Shelling out on cockles.Accept no substitute. There are a lot of imitators about! For a start, there are Venus clams and ark clams, not to mention the Japanese little neck clams. All of these are quite often sold as ‘cockles’. They’re all about the same size, and the only difference is in the shell markings and the colouring. For that matter, even the sought-after and costly scallops, look very much the same, although they tend to be larger.

But when it comes to brothers and sisters, you can line them all up: the smooth-shelled egg cockle, the blood cockle, basket cockles, rock cockles, hard shell cockles, even the inedible dog cockle – and these are just the common ones. Altogether, there are 200 close members of saltwater clams officially known as the Cardiidea family, but more generally referred to overall as ‘cockles’. In fact, there are so many shellfish like this, that the most common in the Cardiidae family are called ‘true cockles’ by fishmongers and fishermen, just to distinguish them from the others.

Actually, these ‘true cockles’ are the jumping Jack Flashes of the mollusc world. Many shellfish put down roots and hang about in the same place for months on end, just waiting to be eaten. Others crawl languorously, like stoned snails, from one rock to the next. But true cockles have really big feet – well, one of them, anyway. And when they decide that it’s time for a change of scene, it’s a question of bending this foot underneath and suddenly twanging it, thus popping the cockle out from under the surface of the seabed, and jumping to a new place several inches away. Happily, they don’t do this when they’re on your plate – although it might be fun if they did.

Shelling out on cockles.You’ll find cockles lurking just below the surface of the mud or silt of a seabed or a shallow tidal estuary. They dig themselves in, all nice, cosy and hidden away, then pop up a little periscope. This is actually a feeding tube through which they siphon water in and out, extracting the minute plankton upon which they live. They are rarely, if ever, harvested underwater. Rather, it’s when the tide is out that you’ll see the cockle catchers hard at work. The giveaway is that little feeder hole which indicates the presence of the cockle beneath. Unfortunately, the Christmas season on Samui corresponds to a period of high and unsettled seas, so you won’t notice any of the characteristically doubled-over figures, out on the sandbars!

In Europe, and in The British Isles in particular, cockles are a long-established item for a great many people. Back in Victorian times such fare was exclusively the province of the poor, many of whom were only able to subsist by gathering their own basic seafood diet. But, in the cities, the seafood vendors were to be found throughout the poorer areas, with the cries of “Cockles and mussels!” being a common backdrop. Even today, this tradition still exists, but the trade is now thriving instead via pre-vinegared polystyrene packs.

TThe town of Morecambe, in the blustery northeast of England, is one of Europe’s cockling focal points, and on most days, you’ll see upwards of 200 people slogging away with their dibbers, buckets and bags. Given their stamina, it’s quite usual to accumulate in excess of 40 bags in a day, each one weighing 25 kilos. And these, sold in the local markets, are worth around 600 Euros at today’s rates. In fact, in the last few years, with England having a surfeit of very cheap labour coming in from Poland and Romania, the numbers of cocklers along this part of the English coastline has effectively tripled. The bulk of this produce is immediately shipped to Europe, where it fetches premium prices in Holland, Belgium, France and Spain - these counties having already almost exhausted their diminishing cockle beds.

But if the thought of all of this is making you shiver – after all you came here to get away from the gales and the near-zero temperatures – then lets come back to Thailand and its cockles. Actually, the vast majority of the Kingdom’s shellfish production is via its farms, which currently outputs around 180,000 tons of cockles, mussels and oysters. But, for some reason, here on Samui, people seem to take great pride in breaking their backs for hours just to collect a few handfuls of these tiny molluscs, even though they are readily and cheaply available at all the markets. Interestingly, although you’ll come across the occasional dish which features cockles, they never seems to appear in any of the featured seafood platters – just far too much work to fiddle about with them, I assume, for the amount of product that this generates.

No, instead you’ll come across them at private parties and barbecues, steamed and spiced, but heaped, still in their shells, all together in one big dish. Many people I know aren’t very keen on squid, as usually it’s too chewy and rubbery for their tastes. Cockles, on the other hand are notably less so, although I can think of many more appetising snacks than one that would look more in place at the end of a young person’s finger, but is also well seasoned with sand as an added attraction!

It takes all sorts to make a world. And, here in the sun, real, luscious, succulent seafood is readily available, and at a fraction of the price you’d pay for it back home. I suppose if you really wanted to you could scout around for mini molluscs – but, considering everything else that’s available, you’d have little reason to shell out for cockles at all!


Rob De Wet


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