This hearty, flavoursome chowder is a welcome and warming treat following a day outdoors in the ongoing winter squall here in the Outer Hebrides. This includes time spent at our local cockle strand harvesting this delightful free food.
Foraging for cockles provides exhilaration in the form of fresh air, a bit of graft – and the potential threat of a fast rising tide to keep you on your toes. This small and wonderful bivalve beast Cerastoderma edule is almost ubiquitous around the coast of the UK. It can be found in soft intertidal substrates from sand to gravel to a depth of about 5 cm. From population estimates, it is the UK’s second most abundant bivalve after that featured in my last post, mussels.
In terms of commercial availability, cockles are almost exclusively harvested from wild populations, unlike mussels which are available predominantly from cultivated populations. Cockles normally live for 2-4 years and growth is rapid in the first 2 years, slowing with age and they can live for up to 9 years. Late autumn/early winter is the best time to collect cockles as adults often lose weight over the winter. Despite the fascinating life history and population dynamics of cockles, I cannot afford further digressions down that road, otherwise, I might never finish this post.
There are extensive cockle strands both north and south of our house. Although the density of cockles is not necessarily very high, the cockles are large and flavoursome. We opted to go south, equipped with a rake and a bucket and sussed out with keen eyes where the best spots may be to collect as the rising tide encroached, scraping delicately and diligently across the sand surface to feel the cockles just below the surface with the rake. I have also done this with a cutlery fork, or my hands, all require a lot of bending and scraping, a tactile, worthwhile experience.
We ought to be ashamed that the humble yet delicious cockle is no longer relished across Old Blighty. This most traditional British seaside favourite still has a toehold of popularity in the East End of London, but most harvested stocks are sadly consigned for export to more appreciative nations.
The small cockle harvesting industry here is no exception. That said, the most notable cockle strand in the Outer Hebrides is indeed exceptional. The breathtakingly beautiful bay of Traigh Mhor on the northern tip of Barra is the most notable cockle strand on this island chain. It is also the only place in the world where scheduled flights land according to the tide.
Landing or taking off from the beach at Traigh Mhor on Barra is an experience that is on many a bucket list. It has topped polls as the world’s most spectacular landing spot for a flight. I have been lucky enough to land on and depart from this famous cockle strand many times. Below is the ‘runway’. Credit to HIAL for photos 1,2 and 4.
The short 20 minute flight I often took southwards from Benbecula to Barra skirted low along the western machair dune ridge of South Uist before cutting across the Sound of Barra, flying close to the island of Eriskay and the spot where the S.S. Politician sank in 1941. This famous wreck inspired the book, ‘Whisky Galore’ by Compton Mackenzie. Indeed, the author is laid to rest on Barra, near the airport. Many will better recall the highly entertaining 1949 Ealing Studios film comedy based on the book – bad accents and all.
Sadly, due to Local Government cuts, the delightful direct flight between Barra and Benbecula was removed from the schedule. This lifeline link between Barra and the rest of the Uists being permanently cut, despite much local protestations. More is the pity as a result, local workers commuting and on occasion, in summer, tourists, get stranded on either side of the sound when the ferry cannot run, but a plane would have otherwise flown. Very frustrating. It is still possible to enjoy the experience of landing and taking off from Barra, but flights now only run between Glasgow and Barra, the inter-island experience gone, possibly forever. I am glad I have memories of the experience – both positive and less so.
We treated my mum to a flight from Benbecula to Barra for her birthday a couple of years ago. The weather was ideal and the experience was perfect for my parents. We incorporated a walk along the scenic sands of Vatersay and lunch at Cafe Kisimul in Castlebay. Excellent hand-dived scallop pakora, local lamb curry and some of the best coffee available on the Outer Hebrides.
I have had less pleasant experiences leaving Barra on that short flight. Following a difficult and controversial meeting, all ferries back to Uist were cancelled due to gales and myself and my colleagues were ‘lucky’ to be able to secure seats on the flight back to Benbecula. I put the howling gale to the back of my mind and whimsically hoped the flight might be cancelled.
Not so. It landed on the beach in a shower of sea spray, we boarded and within 3 seconds of prop engine thrust, we were up and off, almost vertically, close to cracking our heads on the low roof of the tiny Twin Otter as it bounced about, rapidly and confidently gaining altitude, apparently more rapidly than any plane I have ever flown in. Despite the noise of the wind, the rest of the flight was uneventful and we landed smoothly, safe back on Terra firma in Benbecula in 15 minutes, flying so low we were below the clouds and could take in the breathtaking views of the coast.
Cockle chowder with chorizo
This is a simple recipe that demands only the best quality ingredients: fresh, sweet cockles, quality chorizo and super-fresh local free range eggs.
First, prepare the cockles. To avoid grit, leave the cockles in seawater overnight to allow them to filter out as much sand as possible before cooking. This recipe is a variation of a Rick Stein recipe from Rick Stein’s Seafood.
2.5 litres of cockles, cleaned
1 litre of water
50g chorizo, diced
50 ml Noilly Prat
1 leek, sliced,
4 tomatoes, skinned and finely sliced
2 waxy potatoes, peeled and diced
2 tbsp. double cream
2 large free range eggs
juice of 1 lemon
handful of chopped parsley or chervil
salt and pepper
- Put the cockles in a large pan with about 150 ml of the water and the Noilly Prat and cook at a high heat for 3-5 minutes, shaking occasionally until they are all open.
- Decant into a colander over a pan to retain the cooking juices. Take the meat from the shells, once they have cooled at little.
- Melt the butter in a large pan, add the chorizo and cook until it gains a bit of colour. Add the leek, celery and skinned tomatoes until soft.
- Pour the cockle cooking liquor (minus the last bit to avoid adding sand) and water into the pan. Add the potatoes and simmer the chowder until these are soft.
- Add the double cream and cockles and season.
- Whisk the eggs and lemon juice in a bowl. Add a hot ladle of chowder to this mixture and add to the pan. Stir and allow to thicken over a low heat. Sprinkle on parsley/chervil and serve with crusty homemade bread.
The driech smir outside will soon be forgotten…