Pickled Whelks (or Cockles, or both)
"He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things..."
Mr Olivander ["Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone"] (1997)
This will not appeal to everyone. Whelks are something of a 'Marmite' seafood, but I personally cannot get enough of them. The same can definitely not be said by Bridget, who serves the customers on the market stall in Bute Street. She detests them so much she cannot even bring herself to use their name. She refers to them as "those things" - a reference that always brings me to think of how characters in the "Harry Potter" books by J. K. Rowling refer to the evil sorcerer "Lord Voldermort". Oh well, more for those of us who call the 'love' side of the Marmite coin I guess.
Moving on, we've probably seen the last of the whelks in the farmers' market for this year so, apart from the only bag of prepped whelk meats I now have left in the freezer, it looks like it'll be cockles that will be getting this treatment for the rest of the year. And I suspect I'll be using this recipe again in the months to come as my brother's girlfriend in particular seems to like these seafood pickles as much as me.
I'd wish to think I may call this recipe my own. After all, a pickling liquor is typically just a liquid based on acid, very often vinegar, seasoned with salt and sugar - that part is more or less a given. The aromatics may well be drawn from some usual suspects but will also include some that have a particularly harmonious relationship with the ingredient(s) being preserved and those preferred by the cook. To readers of previous posts of mine it will come as scant surprise that with traditional British shellfish varieties I was quick to reach for traditional British aromatics such as mace, bay and white peppercorns. But in this case I have also included cloves and am very pleased to have done so.
Whether the claim of ownership is fair or not, one thing is for certain: once ready to eat, these pickled molluscs do not last very long at all in my home. Especially when my brother's girlfriend comes to visit!
It is possible to buy cooked and prepped whelk meats (which takes a fair amount of effort out of the process but, of course, comes at a cost). In fact, in Korea, where they are extremely popular, they are sold in tins. Personally, if I come across a good haul of whelks in the farmers' markets I buy and cook a batch, prep them and freeze them as, like cephalopods, the freezing process is argued by some to tenderise them. Whether that's true or otherwise I just freeze them in case I can't get hold of them in leaner times to come.
If prepping your own shellfish I think a practical guideline is that 175g whelk meats come from approximately 1kg whelks and, for the equivalent amount of cockle meats, approximately 750g of cockles are required. See the Notes for how to prepare the shellfish. At some point, I'm minded to try this recipe with mussels and possibly clams too.
Pickled Whelks (or Cockles, or both)
Ingredients (makes 1 small jar sufficient for 4 as a 'nibble')
175g prepared cooked whelk (and/or cockle) meats (see recipe intro and Notes)
150ml malt vinegar (the dark variety), plus a little extra if required
1 mace blade
1 or 2 bay leaves
¼ tsp white peppercorns
¼ tsp sugar
¼ tsp sea salt flakes
Prepare the shellfish as directed in the Notes. These may be made ahead and refrigerated or just allowed to cool to room temperature.
In a non-reactive saucepan bring the vinegar, along with all the remaining ingredients, to the boil for sufficient time as to dissolve the sugar and salt flakes. Allow to cool a little.
Pack the shellfish meats into a sterilised jar and pour over the pickling liquor. If a little extra liquid is required top up with more vinegar.
Seal the jar and leave for 24-48 hours before eating. Once the jar has been opened, it should be kept in the fridge where it will last for a few days, but bring to room temperature before serving.
Preparing whelk meats: Scrub the worst of the dirt off the shells then soak the whelks in several changes of cold water for about 20 mins. Put the whelks in a large saucepan and cover with cold water (you can add a few aromatics if you like: bay leaves, peppercorns, a splash of vinegar, thyme sprigs etc.). Bring to the boil, uncovered, and once boiling, reduce the heat and simmer gently for 10 mins. Drain through a colander and, when cool enough to handle, use a small fork to twist out the meats. With a small, sharp knife slice away the hard calciferous disc at the meaty end of the whelk and trim away the dark innards from the 'tail' end that has been curled up in the far end of the shell and can be a bit gritty. The remainder of the meat may be eaten immediately, or stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 1-2 days or in the freezer for up to a month.
Preparing cockle meats: Wash the cockles in plenty of cold water. Any cockles that remain open after being tapped hard are dead and should be discarded but the remainder should be drained through a colander. Heat a touch of olive oil in a large saucepan over a high heat and, once hot, tip in the cockles and immediately cover the pan. Cook for about 1-2 mins until the majority of the cockles have at least partially opened then drain again through a colander. Any unopened cockles should be discarded. Remove the meats from the open cockles and use immediately or store in the fridge in an airtight container for 1-2 days.
Sterilising a jar: Wash the jar in hot soapy water and rinse well but do not dry with a towel. Place the jar open side down in an oven preheated to 150°C and leave for 20 mins. After this time the jar is sterilised but may need a few minutes to cool enough to be handled.