Can you see the mistake? There actually aren't any winkles (Littorina littorea) on my dinner plate, these are mostly topshells with a hidden whelk or two. Topshells and whelks are also edible. Winkles, also known as common perwinkles have been eaten for thousands of years by humans. They're an abundant univalve (they have no hinge like mussels, clams or oysters) that live on the foreshore. They are usually the shell fish living highest up on the shore, so are often the easiest to forage all year round, regardless whether it's a big tide or not.
Topshells are known to live in the intertidal zone (the area between the high and low tide), though they too are found in shallow pools on the foreshore. The easiest way to tell a topshell is by their mother-of-pearl lining - turn it over and you'll see their jewel-like rim. Many topshells also have a zig-zag pattern on them, as in the image below.
Winkles, Common Periwinkles, edible Winkle
Winkles are simpler. Their colouring is plain, often looking black when wet and these are the traditional sea snail that is associated as food. They have a simple white lining and are known by any of the names above. Traditions aside, all sea snails can be eaten it's just that winkles are thought to have the best flavour. It just depends on which you'd like to eat, where you are and what's available - I was looking for winkles one day and could only find topshells, so my dinner menu was decided upon. It's generally easier to find them on rocky shores rather than sandy beaches.
How to prepare and eat winkles or topshells
Winkles or topshells can be a simple snack that you can linger on. Easy to pick and cook, though they require a little attention to eat. It's a good habit to pay attention when eating - use it as a mindful exercise if you like.
Unlike bivalves, these univalves aren't filter feeders, so are generally safer to eat. They live off a diet of seaweeds and you'll expect to find them on beaches with lots of wrack seaweeds growing - I digress. It's still preferable to purge them though; rinse them in fresh water a couple of times and leave them to soak for 3-4 hours and no more than 12 hours. Ideally in salted water - 35 g sea salt to 1 litre of water, 7 g sea salt to 200 ml of water, ecetera.
Topshells and winkles only need to be cooked for 4-5 minutes, then eaten with a pin. Yes, a pin! The flesh is sealed in with a small disc which you can flick out with the pin then hook out the flesh. Easy! It just takes time, and is worth lingering on (see the flesh in the image below) - slow, local food at its best.
Winkle, Perwinkle or Topshell Recipe
You can just simmer the shells then dip the cooked flesh in garlic butter, or here I've simmered them in white wine with some seasoning. It was delicious and lots of sauce to soak up with chunks of bread afterwards. Here's my easy recipe.
- Onions or shallots
- White wine
- Rock Samphire, or other wild herbs such as sorrel
- Sea salt and pepper
- Pinch of ground seaweed (I used bladder wrack)
- Sea snails of your choice (purged)
Chop and fry the onion over a medium heat until translucent. Add the wine and bring to a simmer, add the chopped herbs and seasoning, then the sea snails. There should be enough wine to cover the snails once they're added. Simmer for 4-5 minutes then take off the heat and eat, with a pin and chunks of fresh bread.
I am available to lead private forays where you can choose the content - such as shellfish. I've led a couple of shellfish based private forays this year for those wanting a little more of a meaty cook up. Wracks, the diet of these sea snails, are some of the seaweeds that I teach on my seaweed foraging courses too.
I love foraging, I love the adventure of it, the thrill, the simplicity and the sheer satisfaction of collecting, preparing and eating my own gathered wild food. The last time I foraged for mussels I was with a friend, it was a wild, windy day and we found ourselves on the beach at low tide surrounded by nice, plump mussels. There and then we made a dinner plan and a spontaneous feast was foraged.
We carefully picked the largest, healthiest looking mussels, knowing the beach we were on was clean, and we discarded any that we un-attached, partially open or broken. We walked away, happy with our booty and I reflected on my reasons for not foraging shellfish more regularly. Quite simply, I want to stay safe and well. Food poisoning is not my idea of fun and I want to avoid it at all costs.
With that in mind, I thought I'd write a few notes on how to stay safe and well when foraging for shellfish. There are 3 key elements, then a few extra tips of cooking and preparing shellfish. These notes are brief, though hopefully they will add to your knowledge and help you enjoy what you forage.
No. 1. Always pick away from sources of pollution
This might be sewage, towns or other sources of pollution. I always recommend checking online and with locals who know their beach well and its cleanliness, or lack of. I'm always grateful for fishermen who share with me where to get clean mussels from.
No. 2. Wash thoroughly
Just because something is wild, it doesn't mean it is clean and good for you, below are some thorough notes on rinsing different shellfish for food consumption.
No. 3. Make sure they're alive
Sometimes it is useful to state the obvious, and, obviously, act on it too. Dead shellfish, are not good to eat, so discard shellfish that are dead when you forage them, or do not open when cooked.
Cockles - Winkles - Periwinkles - Mussels - Clams
If you are lucky enough to find any of these, here are some extra notes on cooking and rinsing them. Rinsing is often known as purging, and provides time to rid the shellfish of any unwanted extras, from toxins, bacteria and micro-organisms to sand, mud and anything untoward in their guts. It is well worth taking the time to do this, obviously.
What water and how much to use when purging?
If your shellfish are from the sea, then purging in salted water will be the best option, sea salt that is. The amounts are; 35g of sea salt to every litre of water, or clean, filtered sea water. The shellfish just need to be covered with water, no more or less. Purging means just letting the shellfish sit and soak in this water for the suggested amount of time.
If the shellfish have been foraged from estuaries, then fresh water should also be fine, though you might want to add a little salt. Cockles, mussels and clams are all shellfish I mention in my blog; What can you forage on the Helford?
Cockles - Rinse through with fresh water, then soak for 6 hours and check they are still alive before cooking for 5 minutes
Winkles and Periwinkles - Rinse through with fresh water, then purge for 12 hours, plunge into boiling water for 10 minutes
Mussels - Using a knife, scrape off all the barnacles, rinse twice with fresh water and check they are alive before cooking
Clams - Rinse with fresh water, then purge for 6 hours and cook for 10 minutes