Shellfish

Shellfish

By
Nathan Outlaw
Contains
17 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849491150
Photographer
David Loftus

Clams and cockles

Tasty, succulent clams can be found all around our coastline. Manila, surf and razor clams – all of which taste fantastic – are the most common varieties, but you might also come across carpet shells, sand gapers, hard shells, warty venus and other varieties at the right time of year. Local knowledge is the key. Some varieties are native; others have arrived on our shores and settled. With the exception of razor clams, which need to be treated slightly differently owing to their very different shape, clams can be cooked in the same way as mussels and cockles. Clams live in sandy, muddy and pebbly areas and you sometimes get the odd one that retains a bit of grit after washing. Accept this and don’t let that ruin your enjoyment of these beauties. The best time to eat clams is from September to February, but don’t worry about the sustainable aspect – there are loads of them!

My first taste of cockles was on Hastings seafront. My grandad bought them from a fish and chip shop and, of course, we had them with malt vinegar… Since then I’ve used them in many different ways. Cockles are available all year, but I suggest you avoid them in the summer when they are spawning. They are common around the UK and are very sustainable. They are quite easy to gather yourself, but do ask around before you venture out with a rake and a bucket. Cockles live happily anywhere, including undesirable areas, so ask locals if the quality of the water is good enough for cockling. When you get your cockles home, it’s best to purge them in a mixture of salt and water overnight to get rid of all the sand and mud before cooking them. Make sure you throw away any that are open as they will be dead. Mature cockles for eating are generally 2–3 years old; occasionally they live to 5 years but these are a little tough to eat.

Mussels

I am fortunate to have an abundance of fantastic mussels growing on the Camel Estuary, a stone’s throw from the restaurant in Porthilly Bay. Nurtured by father and son Tim and Luke Marshall, mussels grow happily on the estuary farm, as long as they manage to avoid the ever-hungry shore crabs and various sea birds. Farmed mussels are safest to eat, as they are held in clean seawater and treated with ultraviolet light for 48 hours to get rid of nasty bacteria before they are sold. It is rare to find wild mussels in the shops nowadays. The common wild mussel has a lot to contend with as it clings to rocks, seaweed and other mussels. Constantly threatened by predators, it also has to survive extremes of temperature and a fair amount of battering when conditions get tough. You can gather wild mussels yourself at the beach, provided you take some precautions to avoid ghastly food poisoning. Mussels can filter up to 1 litre of seawater per hour, but that water needs to be clean. Try to stick to beach and rocky areas with fast running tides, well away from any sewage outlets and harbours. Also avoid collecting mussels in hotter months, when bacteria will grow at a faster rate.

Mussels are an excellent, sustainable seafood and easy to prepare. Before cooking, check that they are in good condition and closed. Tap any open mussels sharply – they will close up if they’re alive, otherwise discard them. Similarly throw away any mussels that have cracked or damaged shells. Pull away the hairy ‘beard’, attached to one end of the mussel. Farmed mussels should only need a quick rinse to clean them without washing away flavour, but if mussels are sandy or dirty you’ll need to give them a more thorough wash or a quick soak in cold water.

Oysters

I serve two types of oyster at my restaurants: farmed Pacific and wild native. To me, the wild native oyster is a treasure to be respected… and never, ever cooked! To fully enjoy a wild native, open it up and eat it – it’s as simple as that. I feel differently about farmed oysters. Yes, I love to eat them live, but I also think they have a special quality when cooked. Their texture changes on cooking and they still taste wonderful.

The wild native oyster lives in estuaries and shallow water, hiding in muddy or sandy beds. All oysters draw in seawater and filter up to 6 litres a day, taking the oxygen and nutrients they need to live and grow, so it goes without saying that water quality is a vital consideration when gathering wild oysters. A hundred years ago, native oysters were abundant, cheap and eaten by all – rich and poor. Nowadays, partly because of the effects of pollution, natives are much rarer and considered a luxury food. As they are a protected species they can only be harvested outside of their spawning season, which is from May to the end of August. I buy my native oysters from a fisherman who collects them in the old-fashioned way from the Helford River in Cornwall, which helps to keep the fishing sustainable. In many parts of the country the native oyster is listed as a threatened species, so if you happen to find one, double check before helping yourself, as you could be breaking the law.

When buying oysters it is very important that you know where they are from and that they are tightly closed. Never eat an oyster that is open; it will be dead. You might be in for a treat if you happen to be on a beach near an oyster farm, as Pacific oysters have been breaking loose for years and growing happily (and quite quickly) in wild waters. If you plan on eating them, just check that they are nowhere near a sewage outlet or harbour. If you’re confident, then eat away.

Scallops

Like mussels and oysters, these bivalves are filter feeders, but unlike their relatives, scallops are pretty mobile, swimming and moving around the ocean at different times of the year. Whenever their rows of many eyes – arranged along the edge of their shells – sense danger on the horizon, they swim off at an impressive speed. A flock of scallops swimming through the sea is an amazing sight. Scallops can live well into double figures, but they are best harvested and eaten when 3–5 years old. You can tell the age of a scallop by the rings on its shell, each ring roughly representing a year. Dark-shelled scallops are from northern rocky coastlines, while pale-shelled scallops are from southern sandy locations. The best time to eat scallops is from December until late spring; make sure you avoid them during the summer, when they are spawning.

There are two types of scallops in the UK: the king and the queen. King scallops will grow up to 15 cm across, while queens never reach more than 10 cm. Scallop diving is the most sustainable way to catch these shellfish, far preferable to the commercial dragging method. Hauling a huge net attached to a beam over the seabed causes a lot of devastation, as it takes everything and breaks things in its path, so other species are often wiped out in the search for prized scallops. But scallop divers can adversely affect sustainability too, as they tend to pick out the larger scallops which are at their peak for reproduction and should really be left alone. It’s important that everyone who is involved in scallop fishing is respectful. Scallops are wonderfully succulent and sweet. We should be able to enjoy them as a treat with a clear conscience.

Crab

The common brown crab is by far our most popular variety, with succulent, tasty flesh that is relatively easy to pick from the shell. The first brown crabs of the season are available to me in late March or early April, when Calum my crab and lobster man puts his pots back out after the rougher winter weather has passed. The larger cock crabs are the first to be caught from the deep. They are around for 8–10 weeks, then like magic, they disappear – often overnight. From July until October, I get the smaller hen crabs, which are just as tasty but don’t yield as much meat. Brown crabs will hide out in small caves when the sea is rough and to stay away from predators, but they are pretty awesome predators themselves with strong claws that will grab your fingers if you’re not careful. In its youth, a brown crab regularly bursts out of its shell in order to grow a bigger one, leaving it temporarily vulnerable until the soft shell hardens to armour again. Crabs are not easy to catch en masse, which is one reason why UK stocks are pretty good. Pregnant females have to be returned to the sea by law, which also helps a lot. A brown crab is a thing of beauty and should be celebrated when it’s about, so treat it with care, cook it simply, savour and enjoy…

If you have ever seen a spider crab walking across the rocks at very low tide, you’ll know how fascinating these alien creatures are to watch, and they’re very tasty too. From May, they are everywhere for a couple of months, becoming a nuisance to most crab fisherman as they crowd the pots. In low water from a boat, I’ve seen the seabed almost consumed by spider crabs, as they cover every inch of sand and rock in a breeding frenzy. Then these creatures swim off into the deep, returning the following May in their thousands. I like to make the most of these tasty crabs in the short time they are available. Towards the end of the season though, you do get the odd one that is watery – a consequence of the crab shedding its shell and devoting its energy to growing a new one. The beginning of the season is really the best time to enjoy them.

Of the various crabs around our coastline, the one you are most likely to get pinched by is the aggressive, small, fast velvet crab. With its red eyes, super speed and super strength for something so small, it’s pretty scary! But, if you want to make a special shellfish soup, these are the crabs to use. They may not yield much in the way of meat, but they have a fantastic flavour, especially when roasted and made into a soup. Unfortunately we don’t appreciate them enough and most of the velvet crabs caught in our waters go abroad. Sustainable and around all year, velvet crabs deserve to be eaten more in the UK, though ones with eggs should be avoided.

Shore crabs, the kind we catch on crab lines as kids, are around all year. These are the ones mussel farmers fear the most because they have the capacity to wipe out young mussel beds in a very short time. With negligible meat yield, shore crabs are really only suitable for making stock or soup. But it’s well worth doing this as often as you can, as they yield a tasty broth and you’ll be doing those mussel farmers a favour…

Lobster

I am extremely lucky to have Port Isaac, one of the best places to source lobster in the UK, only a short drive from my restaurants. Calum, my experienced lobster fisherman, always keep us well stocked from late spring until autumn, with only the best specimens. When you consider that lobsters can live for up to 50 years, they deserve a lot of respect! They certainly get it in our kitchens, as we always cook them with care and simplicity. Their flavour and texture is so good, the less you do to them the better. The lobsters we serve are usually from 8–12 years old and, in my opinion, are at their tastiest at around 600 g.

If you ever catch a lobster yourself and find it’s a female with attached eggs, carefully return it to the sea. By law, you must do so! Incredibly, the mother will carry those eggs for nearly a year, which is a miracle in itself when you consider the threats from predators and the forces of nature. At our local national lobster hatchery in Padstow you can fully appreciate the battles and adventures a lobster must endure, even fighting each other, to stay alive. The careful nurturing within the lobster hatchery is vital to keep this most beautiful of sea creatures going strong.

Squid and cuttlefish

These cephalopods are loosely classified as shellfish as they have an internal shell – squid has a quill, while cuttlefish has a cuttlebone. Squid is a fascinating creature – the ultimate hunting machine. It shoots through the water, steered by its large fins, and siphons water through its body to create what can only be described as jet power. It can change colour to match its surroundings, switch direction in the water instantly, and shoot ink into the path of any prey or predator to cause confusion. Squid is very sustainable, aided by a fast life cycle – it has only a one-year breeding season. Just avoid eating it fresh during winter and early spring, when it is spawning. When you buy squid, check that the body and tentacles have no signs of pinkness, which indicate that it is old. In my experience, frozen squid is often more tender than fresh, because the freezing process helps to tenderise the flesh.

My budgie learnt to appreciate cuttlefish long before I tried it. When I was a kid, ‘Burt’ the budgie always had a cuttlebone in his cage to keep his beak busy. Now I can see what the fuss was all about. This cephalopod is probably one of the most intelligent creatures in the sea. Like squid, camouflage is one of its most impressive attributes, enabling it to blend into any situation, whether hiding or hunting. But unlike squid, which I prefer to cook quickly, I enjoy cuttlefish slow cooked or braised.

I am also a big fan of cuttlefish ink, which has more flavour than squid ink and there is always more of it. Cuttlefish live for a few years and breed inshore, where most of them are caught. They should be avoided during the spring and early summer spawning season. One of our local fishermen once brought me a cuttlefish that had got caught in his lobster pot. Not realising it was live, I grabbed it and got a nasty clip from its beak… I certainly wouldn’t want to be a fish engaged in battle with a cuttlefish.

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