Coddling Winkles

As things turn out our tide on Strollamus turns out to be the seashore highlight.  With deteriorating weather, time on the beach becomes more of a challenge and I adopt my supermarket approach to fieldwork.  You just have to rush in, fill your trolley (buckets) with what you need and dash out again.  The luxury of wandering over the shore looking for shells lying around, or lifting rocks to peer underneath is nothing like so enjoyable when you have rain dripping off the hood of your jacket onto your nose, and you have no windscreen-wipers on your spectacles.

Nevertheless on the last shore day I learn a new trick.  Julia is well versed in the finding and identifying of nudibranchs, otherwise known as sea-slugs.  I’ve said it before but to appreciate the beauty of this Order of gastropod molluscs you should check out Jim Anderson’s website Scottish Nudibranchs.  Some of them are so minute you barely see them with a naked eye, but you can know where to look and in the matter of Doto, Julia does.

Most seaslugs have very specific food requirements.  They may feed exclusively on a kind of bryozoan or hydroid.  If you find the food you can look, and often find, the feeder.  I am shown a hydroid that grows on the common brown seaweeds (Fucus species) on the shore.  They are covered with dainty, spiky fronds that look like fine threads.  These are the hydroid Dynamena. One species of Doto feeds on this organism and indeed with a handlens you can see the hydroid is covered with the tiny slugs and their egg masses.  By kind permission Peter allows me to post a snapshot of this small assemblage below.

And talking of food, our final evening when we expect to empty the fridge of ‘left-overs’ turns into an innovative feast.  We use up eggs, bacon, potatoes, cheese, pasta, curry, tomatoes, celery, strawberries, cream ………. and centre stage on the table goes to a colander of winkles we gathered from the shore at Braes that afternoon.  Bas has already experimented earlier on the trip with a new approach to cooking clams.  This does not involve boiling them to death.  He applies his theory to cooking winkles (as one might coddle an egg) and the result is tender, tasty snippets of protein.  Here is what he does:

A >  Scrub and rinse the shells.
B >  Place them in a layer only one or at most two shells deep in a pan or bowl.
C >  Pour on boiling water about three times as deep as the shells (i.e. lots of water in relation to the amount of shell, so that they heat up quickly).
D >  Leave for 10-15 minutes.
E >  Pour the hot water off, remove meat from the shells with a pin, and eat.

It’s probably even more important than usual to make sure that the place you collect the shells isn’t polluted, as the shellfish are cooked relatively lightly; and for the same reason it’s probably best not to use it on very large shells as they may not cook right through.

The same method works well also with clams; and even better if you start by lightly frying an onion in butter in a saucepan, pouring on a little white wine, then turning the plate off, adding the shells as in B above, and then pouring on boiling water etc. as in C-E.

I am grateful to Bas for allowing me to reproduce his recipe here and also to my fellow workers on the trip who have allowed me to use their photographs in the Skye galleries.

Three of us set out on Tuesday morning for our journey south.  The weather is still moist and overcast but we are blessed with a wonderful rainbow on our way to Fort William.  We are all quiet and, I think, wrapped up in many thoughts.  I am thinking about the sample pots I am taking home.

During our sorting sessions one of my compatriots looked through his microscope and uttered an expletive.  I peered down his eyepieces and saw that he had a point.  His petri dish was awash with small snails.  There were hardly any mineral grains or other beings.  He looked at his pot of residue and saw that it was uniformly the same.  We did a finger in the air calculation and worked out that his pot might contain 64,000 snails.  Fortunately they were nearly all specimens of less than a handful of species.  But the sample needs to be sorted because this is why we take samples of the weed faunas.  These are tiny molluscs, we are talking a pot the size of a plastic 35mm-film canister.  That’s just one sample and we have looked at 6 sites.

As we drive along I look out at the mountains on this misty morn and sigh.  So many snails……….. so little time.


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