Foraging on my doorstep 2: Cockle chowder with chorizo

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.

cockles 2

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.

Barra runway

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.

11743373-landing-at-barra-airport

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.

Flybe-Twin-Otter-at-Barra-Airport-Outer-Hebrides-Scotland

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.

cr_mega_8_Barra Beach Landing

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.

Ingredients

2.5 litres of cockles, cleaned
1 litre of water
25g butter
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

cockles

Method

  • 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…

cockle chowder

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Hebridean langoustines – three ways

The supreme quality of seafood available in the Outer Hebrides is hard to compete with and I feel ashamed that I have yet to champion Hebridean seafood by featuring it in a recipe so far (except mussels, of course).

I am thinking specifically about crustaceans. Recent posts highlighting super-fresh Crustacea by My French Haven (langoustines) and Food, Frankly (crayfish) have further served to remind me to do so, as well as a superb meal cooked for us by friends at the weekend and featuring a star dish of lasagne with local crab.

Langoustines – King of Crustacea

My King of Crustacea award goes to langoustines (Nephrops norvegicus), also referred to variously as scampi, Norway lobster and Dublin Bay prawn. Prawn, the local name here, is confusing nomenclature as they are more closely related, and have a flavour and texture similar but superior to lobster.  Eaten when fresh, langoustines have the sweetest most delicate flavour of all crustacea and indeed, are sublime, but they should be fresh i.e. live when you acquire them.

The life of the langoustine

Langoustines are found where there is suitable muddy sediment, the habitat in which they construct and occupy burrows where they spend most of their time. They can be found in shallow coastal waters a few metres deep, including sea lochs and up to water depths of more than 500m to the west of the Outer Hebrides at the edge of the continental shelf.

They are opportunistic predators and scavengers feeding on marine worms, other crustaceans and molluscs. Females mature at about 3 years old. Mating takes place in early summer, with spawning in September .  The ‘berried’ females carry the eggs until they hatch the following spring.  The planktonic larvae develop, metamorphosing through several fascinating larval stages, before settling on the seabed about 2 months later.

The Outer Hebridean langoustine fishery

The fishery is extremely important economically for the Outer Hebrides and has been growing since the 1960’s.  Scotland contributes to about 1/3 of the total catch of langoustines worldwide.  Here in the Uists, a good proportion of the catch is made by small local boats using creels, mainly in coastal waters.  This method of fishing is more sustainable than trawling since it causes less ecological damage as it is more selective.  The prawns are also of very high quality as they are less damaged and stressed than trawled specimens. The Scottish Government consider this fishery to be healthy around the Outer Hebrides.

The main markets are for export and most of the stocks caught here are transported live to Spain and France and also to a number of discerning hoteliers and restaurateurs on the UK mainland. Vehicles carrying live prawns can be seen leaving on the ferries most days.  For residents, you have to know where to intercept this prime export at source before it leaves the island.  I am fortunate to have a friend with a langoustine export business, so my prawn quarry is easy to find. I consider it foraging by proxy.  Visitors to the island are likely to have to do a bit of homework to pin down some langoustines while here. While I am familiar with ecology of this species, my friend had provided fascinating insights into the live langoustine business here on the island and beyond.

Cooking with langoustines

Freshly cooked langoustines

There is no doubt that langoustines are luxury produce and therefore are very expensive, especially around Christmas and New Year, when market demands are high and they are in good condition.  Last time I saw them for sale in Glasgow they were £35 a kilo – and that was for dead cooked prawns.  Buying them dead is not without risk as they can be like cotton wool inside and quickly lose their sweetness if they have been sitting around for too long.

I get about 2 kilos at a time and tend to make several meals out of them to celebrate the luxury.  Langoustines are graded according to size and the bigger they are, the more in demand and expensive they will be.  I tend to go for medium/large.

First, out of respect for the animals, they need to be dispatched quickly.  I have a huge pot that I fill with tap water and bring this to a rolling boil.  I place a few prawns in at a time, leave them for about 2 minutes and remove them.  Some recipes I read suggest plunging them into ice-cold water once removed but I think this waterlogs the flesh and risks losing some flavour.  Provided they were only in the pan for a couple of minutes, yes, they do continue to cook a bit, but letting then cool at room temperature seems to work.

The most recent batch I had served me well to make 3 meals and I made absolutely certain nothing went to waste.

Langoustine salad with hot garlic butter, parsley and lemon dressing

This is a recipe I have used for many years and is a variation on a Nick Nairn recipe from his book Wild Harvest 2. Once you have peeled the prawns, this recipe is quick, easy and the flavour combination brings out the sweetness of the prawns.

Ingredients

1kg live langoustines, cooked

50g unsalted butter

2 garlic cloves

2 tblsp lemon juice

zest of 1/2 lemon

a few handfuls of mixed salad leaves

2 tomatoes, seeds and skin removed, flesh finely diced

a handful of chopped parsley

salt and pepper

Method

  • Prepare the cooked langoustines by removing the flesh from the tails.  Keep all heads, claws and shells.
  • Melt the butter with the garlic and lemon zest for a few minutes to tone down the garlic a bit.
  • Add lemon juice then season with a little salt and pepper.
  • Heat this dressing until just boiling, add the prawns, parsley and tomatoes and mix well.  Serve with the mixed leaves, and some fine homemade bread to mop up the dressing.

lango salad

.Split and grilled langoustine with chilli, lime and coriander

This recipe couldn’t be simpler, and with a hot grill or barbecue, is ready in about 3 minutes. Enough for 4 people as a starter, 2 as a main course, but I could easily eat the whole kilo myself…..

Ingredients

1kg of langoustines, cooked

2 garlic cloves, crushed

juice of a lime or a lemon

1 large red chilli, finely chopped

a bunch of chopped coriander

4 tblsp of rapeseed oil

a few turns of pepper

Method

  • Mix the chopped coriander, chilli, garlic, lime/lemon juice, pepper and oil together.
  • Split the langoustines down the centre, place on the grill pan and drizzle over the dressing.
  • Cook under a hot grill for 3 minutes, or until just hot.  Serve with lemon/lime wedges.
Split and grilled prawn delight

Split and grilled prawn delight

Langoustine bisque

This recipe is more time-consuming and complex than the last two but uses the remains of the whole animal to provide an outstandingly rich and decadent bisque.

Shells form the previous two recipes ready to use in the bisque

Shells from the previous two recipes ready to use in the bisque

Ingredients

40g butter

1 onion, finely chopped

2 stalks of celery, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, sliced

1 red chilli

1/2 fennel bulb, sliced

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

2 bay leaves

juice of a lemon

a pinch of saffron

1 tblsp of brandy

a small bunch of parsley

1 tblsp tomato puree

1.5 litres of water

500ml fish or shellfish stock

small glass of Noilly Prat

150ml of double cream

Simmering of bisque underway

Simmering of bisque underway

Method

  • Heat the butter until foaming and gently fry the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, chilli, fennel, bay leaves until the onions have softened a bit.
  • Add the Noilly Prat and cook until reduced by half.
  • Add the shells, heads and claws of the langoustines to the pan, crushing them to extract a lot of flavour.  I use a potato masher to do this.
  • Add the fish/shellfish stock and water, tomatoes, tomato puree, most of the parsley and saffron.  Allow to simmer gently for an hour or so.
  • Sieve the mixture into a clean pan, again squeezing all the flavour from the langoustines and add the brandy, cream and lemon juice and season, as required. Heat gently.
  • Serve and garnish with parsley and swirl in some cream.
Langoustine bisque is served

Langoustine bisque is served

lango grill