Seafood and eat it
Our rocky shores provide endless edible bounty for the hungry beachcomber, enthuses John Wright, who fearlessly gropes in the mud for supper
Our rocky shores provide endless edible bounty for the hungry beachcomber, enthuses John Wright
The sandcastles are a magnificent ruin, the ice cream a sweet and sticky memory and the sea just that little bit too cold for another dip. The tide is going out. Time for an adventure. Sun-bathing beaches are seldom of interest to the naturalist (although the naturist may well find something to catch the eye) and you will have to wander from your towel to the rocky end of the bay or to the edge of a nearby estuary. Seaweedy, rocky shores and muddy, sandy estuaries—anything with life.
Beyond the deep, fast-moving channels, the estuarine world is gentle and flat. Waves are seldom big enough to disturb the mud or sand and life can settle in peace. Superficially, in muddy estuaries, the receding tide reveals little beyond, well, mud; even seaweeds fail to establish a foothold except, perhaps, on any islands of gravel. however, closer attention will reveal thousands of holes that mark the homes of many species of marine worms and clams.
The most notable worm is that favourite bait of anglers, the ragworm (Nereis diversicolor). My father once appeared with some writhing dejectedly in a St Julien empire Blend tobacco tin and showed me how to thread the truly hideous, but unfortunate, creatures on a hook. he mentioned in passing that their blood is toxic (it is) and that they bite (they do). Naturally, any attraction that line-fishing held for me disappeared, never to return.
Some marine worms are considered edible, although you really have to be a seagull or a Klingon to find them appealing. Clams, however, are much more acceptable to the palate. An ebbing mudflat tide is one of the most exciting spectacles in the world if you watch closely. As the mud is exposed, squirts of water dance before you, although you always catch them with the corner of your eye. Nevertheless, these betray the location of worms and, better still, clams.
The largest clam of mudflats that I know is the soft-shelled variety (Mya arenaria). It can grow to 6in long and is an accomplished squirter. The ‘siphon hole’ through which it does so is slightly oval and about 5mm (three-sixteenths of an inch) in diameter. Although its muscular and extendable siphon can reach the surface, the clam itself can be 1ft or more down.
‘You really have to be a seagull to find marine worms appealing’
I use a strong narrow spade to dig a trench alongside the hole, as any attempt to dig one out directly will likely crack the brittle shell. Beside the meaty and rather rude-looking siphon, there’s little to eat, but this soft tissue will act as a fish stock in a chowder. The most familiar clam is the cockle
(Cerastoderma edule). My father would drive us a couple of miles in his 1928 Morris and a cloud of smoke on our annual expedition to Langstone Harbour near Portsmouth. Our simple method was to plunge our hands fearlessly into the completely black mud and grope around for something round and hard. It always worked and our buckets would quickly fill.
Muddy sand is a quite different, species-rich marine habitat. It’s here that you’ll find brown shrimps (Crangon crangon), although they’re also common on many types of sandy beaches. To catch them, you’ll need a push net. This is 3ft to 4ft wide and in the form of a T with two horizontal bars. April and May are high season, although you’ll always find something in your net during any of the warmer months.
A push net is more than just a scoop—as you push it across the seabed, it squeezes the sand and ‘frightens’ the shrimps that are buried and hiding there. They jump up to escape and find themselves in your net. This really does work and I beg you to try it, as searching through the net to see what you’ve caught is a great joy.
Muddy sand also has its marine worms. Some, such as the lugworm (Arenicola
marina), live permanently in U-shaped burrows. At one end, there will be a hemispherical depression with a hole at the bottom and, at the other, a few inches away, a coiled pile of sand. The in and the out.
It’s in muddy sand that our two best clams can be found—the palourde (Ruditapes
decussatus) and razor (Ensis spp). Again, it’s their holes that give them away. All clams have two siphons and it’s the squirting and sucking that produces them. With the supremely edible palourde, the siphons and resultant hollows are about an inch apart, so, when you see two neat holes arranged in this manner, plunge your hand into the sand and there’s a good chance of coming up, triumphantly, with a clam.
The siphons of razor clams are necessarily very close together, so there is only one hole, in the shape of a figure of eight or a key- hole. Famously, the most fun way of catching them is to annoy them out of their burrows with salt. It works and hundreds of razor clams have fallen to my tubs of Saxa. I always feel sorry for them, however, and put most back.
Remarkably, they can swim, flicking their ‘foot’ every few seconds until they find a spot to their satisfaction. Here, the foot resumes its normal occupation by digging around and pulling the clam into a new burrow.
Slipper limpets, often found stranded on sandy shores, never engage my sympathy as they do nothing interesting apart from stacking themselves into apartment blocks. Anyway, they’re an invasive species from North America and only just edible. The Latin name,
Crepidula fornicata, is nothing to do with a suspect moral fortitude, but simply means ‘arched little sandal’; fornix means arch, a reference to the shape of the shell.
Sometimes, however, Latin names actually are direct references to risqué subjects. My razor-clam shore boasts an imported sea squirt. It’s white, 6in long when fully grown, covered in round bumps and squirts water from one end when squeezed. Its name Phallusia mammillata means (and I put this as politely as possible) ‘penis covered in breasts’.
My attempts to eat the world don’t always work out well. In 2015, the beaches of Dorset and elsewhere were piled high with stranded jellyfish. One species, the barrel jellyfish,
Rhizostoma pulmo, dominated and my razorclam beach became scattered with the carcasses. Finding a huge, 23in-diameter specimen that was evidently dead (not that it’s easy to tell), I decided to take a few slices from the fleshy bell and eat them as sushi. It was the texture of a block of jelly that one buys in packets, but tasted strongly and entirely of salt.
‘The most fun way of catching clams is to annoy them with salt’
Few people venture into sandy estuaries or mudflats—they’re not immediately inviting and can be extremely dangerous if you aren’t familiar with local conditions. However, we’re all at home in a rockpool, cheerfully bringing prawn-net-wielding three year olds for a splash, even though there’s plenty that can go horribly wrong.
There’s something irresistible about rockpools. A late-19th-century writer for the
Dundee Mercury poetically described them as ‘an ocean in miniature of surpassing beauty’. Rockpools are like villages, bustling with near human-scale activity.
If you’re lucky enough to find mussels in and around yours, then your supper is secure, but do look out for the species that live with them. Barnacles annoyingly coat mussels in the wild, but they’re wonderful creatures firstly for not being something like a small limpet after all, but stationary crustacea.
Darwin was obsessed with them and they also have the largest penis length to body size ratio on Earth. If you’re stuck to a mussel, there is really no choice if you wish to form a romantic attachment.
Crawling among the mussels, the only marine worm that can remotely be described as attractive can sometimes be spotted. It’s the prettily and decidedly green green-leaf worm (Eulalia viridis).
Inside mussels, one may occasionally find a pea crab. It really is the size of a pea and spends almost its entire life wrapped in the folds of the mussel, feeding on whatever comes its way. It’s a parasite, stealing food from its host, but was once thought to act as a lookout. This misconception is neatly captured in the Latin name Pinnotheres pisum, meaning, roughly, ‘pea-like guard of shellfish’.
Apart from the odd prawn, what every child wishes to fill their bucket with is crabs. Usually, this is the relatively harmless shore crab (Carcina maenas), but the larger—and more edible—velvet swimming crab (Necora
puber) is also a frequent denizen of rockpools. This is a feisty species, which will threaten by flexing its pincers in a ‘come on if you think you can take me’ manner. It’s almost entirely justified in its absurd confidence because it’s utterly fearless and a nip from one is invariably a painful and blood-soaked business. A return to base and another ice cream will be required.
What lies beneath: the pools of Mupe Bay in Dorset might hold all sorts of temptations
‘An ocean in miniature of surpassing beauty’: rockpools are cherished by adults and children alike for their rich diversity of marine wildlife