RFD Maine — Trip to the flats in March marks spring’s arrival
We all have our little seasonal rituals. One of mine involves going clamming in March. The urge strikes when temperatures reach the mid-40s.
The first trip of the year to the shore kindles all kinds of emotions. Memories of long-gone companions and younger, happy days flood my being as I walk out on the beach. The scent of the sea, present at all times and noticeable even some distance from the water, permeates everything when clamming. This salty, rich and ripe aroma titillates my senses.
A warm sun, no wind or at most, a gentle breeze and an early morning tide are prerequisites for my annual March clamming expedition. When these occur concurrently, I know it’s time to head to the flats.
Walking along at water’s edge, little wavelets make gentle splashing sounds as they lap the beach. It’s fun to note just how fast the tide really moves and to do this, just place a stone or clam shell so that it barely touches the water. Check it every few minutes and watch the outgoing tide progress. This swift-moving tide becomes even more evident when the tide rolls back in, often filling holes just excavated in search of clams before the clams are located.
Surf clams, or hen clams, Spisula solidissima, often called “quahogs,” which they aren’t, were always my favorite quarry. These often weigh a half-pound or more. Their very size impresses the most stolid observer. People use various means to seek out and harvest surf clams. The first involves simply walking along the beach and looking for large holes in the sand. Then stand with each foot on either side of the hole and bounce up and down. If it’s a surf clam, it will squirt out a thick stream of water.
All it takes after locating a surf clam is to dig one scoop with a clam hoe, or fork. These huge clams lie only inches below the surface, making them easy to harvest. Just place the tines of the hoe above the hole, push down and rotate the handle to lift out the clam in one, easy motion.
But sometimes, despite a large vent hole in the sand and a good stream of water seen upon testing, the clam seems nowhere to be found. What gives?
Well, this usually means that the clam that squirted was a razor clam, Ensis directus. These look very much like an old-fashioned straight razor and are of a similar length. Razor clams have a moveable appendage called a “foot.” The clam extends this appendage far down on the sand and when alarmed (as when a clammer begins digging), the appendage quickly forms a thick clump at the bottom, anchoring itself in the sand. Then the clam contracts the thing and “zip,” it’s gone in a flash. Daring people try and catch it by quickly sticking their hand down in the sand and feeling for the clam. But true to its name, the edge of a razor clam’s shell is sharp and the clammer often winds up with nothing more than a cut hand.
Surf clams have various culinary uses. Some people simply open the clam and cut out the adductor muscle, the big, round meaty muscle that holds the two halves of the shell together. These look much like scallops and lend themselves to any scallop recipe. But using only one part of a delicious clam seems wasteful, so most of us remove the entire body, including neck, rind and belly and after rinsing, grind up for use in chowders and clam fritters.
Razor clams lend themselves to steaming and also to being ground for use in recipes. I was surprised to learn that some fancy restaurants now feature steamed razor clams on their menus, something unheard of until only recently. A doctor friend told me that last year, at a restaurant in Southern Maine, he ordered a plate of steamed razors, despite what he considered an extravagantly high price. And to think, most old-time coastal residents used razor clams all these years without even realizing that they were so valuable. Live and learn.
The sad part of my story has to do with closures. My (and everyone else’s too) favorite clam flat was Ducktrap Harbor, home to the revered, federally-protected and universally-worshiped, Atlantic salmon. For some years now, Ducktrap Harbor has been closed to shellfish harvesting due to pollution from an unidentified upstream source.
Additionally, Ducktrap is managed as an undeveloped Maine State Park. Why this once-pristine river and harbor should continue to suffer from pollution seems most remarkable. I checked on this and the government employee I spoke with offered no solution. “Somethin’ wrong somewhere,” as my grandpa White used to say.
Other places contain surf clams, but they are few and far between. To learn more about open flats for hen-clamming, contact the Maine Department of Marine Resources. They have power and authority over closing and opening clam flats.
Still, all is not lost. We here in Waldo County have access to blue mussels, Mytilus edulis — meaning something like, “edible mussel.” One place where we can freely venture to harvest mussels, Sears Island, offers easy access and oodles of mussels. I checked with Searsport Town Office to verify that people can still harvest mussels — clams are regulated differently — without a special permit.
Picking mussels is easy. Just walk out at low tide and look for large swaths of blue-black mussels in tidal channels and in and about rocks. Pick the mussel by hand, being careful to remove clinging weeds and pebbles. Also, take time to remove the “holdfast,” or “beard,” the string-like thing that holds the mussel to the stone or in some cases, to other mussels. All simple as pie.
Here’s my favorite mussel recipe. It’s a great one and if closely followed, will make the finest steamed mussels you ever tasted:
1. Place any amount of cleaned mussels in a large saucepan.
2. Add two or three leaves of Northern bay. These grow along the shore and if you can’t find them in season, use store-bought Turkish bay.
3. Cover the pan, place heat on high and turn down to simmer when foam appears at the top. When all mussels exhibit open shells, turn down heat and serve.
Notice that this recipe does not call for any additional liquid. None. Do not add even one drop of water, wine or anything else. The mussels have enough juices inside their shells to make a delicious broth, or “nectar.” I use this nectar to dip my mussels in when eating. A simple, but delicious recipe here, one sure to make a believer of anyone who tries it.
So if the mood strikes, try going mussel picking on Sears Island or any other place open to shellfish harvesting. It’s a great way to welcome spring and the rewards are more than ample for effort expended.