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6 February, 2004

What's a cockle?

It's become evident during the day that non-Brits, or maybe non-Europeans, don't recognise the word 'cockle'.

Cockle shellsA cockle, Cardium edule, is a common edible European bivalve mollusc, having a rounded shell with radiating ribs. Think of the logo of the Shell petroleum company, and you have the approximate shape from the side, but whereas that logo shows the flat shell of a scallop, a cockle's shell is domed. Each animal has two of these shells (bivalve: marine or freshwater mollusc having a soft body with platelike gills enclosed within two shells hinged together), and seen end-on, the overall shape is that of a heart. I presume that's the derivation of the scientific genus name: 'kardia' is Greek for heart. I'd say that if a cockle is an inch across (2.8cm), that's a little larger than usual.

Cockles live on open sandy areas of the intertidal zone, feeding in shallow water when submerged and burying themselves just under the ground surface while the tide is out. Hence, they are relatively easy to harvest with a rake and bucket.
I say 'relatively' because working in an extremely exposed location, in all weathers, often knee-deep in wet sand/mud, is hardly an easy way to make a living, especially considering the inherent dangers of intertidal sand flats, with shifting patterns of gullies and patches of quicksand, and tides which may advance at over 3 mph (5 km/h) in Morecambe Bay, covering a vertical range of 10m (33').
I can barely imagine the horror of fleeing from a rapidly-advancing tide, to find that it has already filled the gullies between the cockle beds and the shore with fast-flowing deep water; the hopelessness of having nowhere to go as the ground begins to saturate, fluidise, and become fatal quicksand.

Pickled cocklesWhy harvest cockles? They're edible. Relatively few people eat them nowadays, but I'm certainly one of them. Pickled in vinegar, they're delicious; a sharp, acid taste combined with the firm, meaty texture of lobster. I cook with them, but can't resist just picking them out of the jar and eating them 'raw' (they're pickled, so chemically cooked; the bottling process probably involves boiling water, too). Mussels (the large blue shells common on jetties and piers) are also fairly popular shellfish, but I find their soft texture unpleasant.

Edible cockleThere's a trick to eating British cockles, which is essential if one is to succeed: don't think about their diet. The cockle beds of South Wales are in the Bristol Channel, 'downstream' of the cities of Bristol, Caerdydd (Cardiff) and Abertawe (Swansea). The North Wales beds are 'downstream' of Liverpool, Chester and minor coastal resorts with limited sewage treatment facilities. The Thames Estuary is, well, the estuary of the River Thames, downstream of 8-10 million human intestines.... More significant are the heavy metals in their environment, but shellfish are periodically checked by government scientists, to check for E.coli and compliance with (ahem) "end product standard requirements as specified in Schedule 5 of the Food Safety (Fishery Products and Live Shellfish) (Hygiene) Regulations, 1998" and there is strict regulation of which beds are safe (in terms of the product being edible) to harvest and when, so I doubt 155g (5.5oz) every couple of months will harm me.

Not worth the deaths of exploited teenagers, though.

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