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

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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

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