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Little Treasures But No Pearls

I remember the first time I tried cockles. On a family camping holiday in Pembrokshire where I was playing in the sand, and suddenly started  scooping out mottled brown and white shells between our fingers by the dozen. When Dad realised what was happening he pegged it back to the car, drove to the nearsest beach shop and came back with a couple of sandcastle buckets which we filled to the brim. We ate them simply steamed and despite all the sand and grit I was hooked.

So last week when we found ourselves in a little creek in Cornwall at low tide our eldest son Jago picked up a closed cockle shell and I pegged it back to the car to get a crabbing bucket and a couple of spades. I was perhaps a little over zealous, we only found a couple more and had a very sorry looking bucket. Then I noticed a rather professional looking man on the far bank armed with a large rake and two 20lt buckets. Surreptitously out of the corner of my eye I noticed he was digging around large clumps of seaweed and in the dips in the sand and quickly instructed my boys to do the same. Our fortunes quickly changed and we soon had a healthy bucket of free food.

Cockle Dig

Although the boys were desperate to try the cockles that evening I had to persuade them that although when they were babies they always insisted on shovelling sand into their toothless little mouths upon every trip to the beach these tasty little treats would be best if we let them clean themselves out for a bit. We tipped them into a shallow tray in a single layer, then mixed 35g of salt into a litre of water, and poured it in until they were just covered then popped them into the fridge overnight. It's important to do this in a wide shallow container so the water can stay aerated, as the oxygen can quickly become depleted and the cockles will suffocate. The following day I cooked them up with some tomatoes, linguine and kale. They were the best I have ever eaten and this isn't me being big headed about my culinary skills but a matter of timing. Cockles are at their plumpest after the summer when the sea is most fertile and before the winter when they start to use up their reserves.

Cockles with kale and linguine

Next we headed to a patch of rocks where on a previous visit I had noticed a few pacific oysters growing but was unable to detach them from the rocks due to a lack of tools. This time however I came prepared with a chisel, mallet, shucking knife, bucket and tupperware. When we arrived my jaw hit the floor, where there were previously a few oysters; there were now hundreds. My goal was to get these off the rocks in one piece so I could keep them alive until we were ready to eat them, so I started to gently tap at them with the chisel and mallet and I got so close... But part of the shell would break at the last minute so I changed tack and using the shucking knife started to pry the top shell away and scoop the meat into the tupperware.

Pacific Oyster fresh of the rocks

Although I know the water in this area is very clean and being October there is low risk of toxic algae there is no way I'm going to feed my family raw oysters which have not gone through UV treatment or from a certified oyster bed.  However I couldn't resist tipping a couple down my throat. Although as you can imagine they tasted amazingly fresh and delicious, it was only marginally worth it because of the anxiety that followed, terrified that I would be in for a very unpleasant experience. However my stomach stayed in one piece and we quickly got on with cooking them up. Firstly I simply pan fried a few in garlic butter and squeeze of lemon juice. The kids had the same reaction to when they first tried raw oysters and rapidly spat them out. This was the first time I had eaten oysters like this and was pleasantly surprised, think fresh plump mussels but with a creamier texture. So next we dipped the remaining oysters in flour, egg and breadcrumbs and fried them. This got a massive thumbs up from the kids and I'm happy they managed to enjoy what they caught, but when I bit into one it was very quickly apparent that all subtlety of flavour had been lost. What I enjoy most about this experience is without having to fork out a bundle of cash for these coveted bi-valves I can experiment with new ideas and recipes and thoroughly recommend giving it a go. However if you think I'm going to give away the location of these little beauties you can jog on.

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Last of the summer wine

Last of the summer wine

If there is one good reason not to strip the hedgerows of elderflower in the early summer it is surely to be able to harvest the berries for making free booze later in the year. I was mega excited to see the berries bursting from the bushes this year asthis meant that the tannins in my 2015 batch have had a full twelve months to mellow and should be ready for tasting. This is the hardest part of making your own grog, the waiting. I wasted three bottles during the last year due to impatiently opening them and trying them every few months before they were ready. Well they weren'tcompletely wasted, I drank them and the alcohol content was already there it just wasn't that nice, however I did discover on the second bottle I opened that if mixed 50/50 with a £5 Rioja it was much more palatable.

The twelve month (minium) wait aside, making elderberry wine is a fairly simple and fun process. I got my recipe from the River Cottage Booze handbook by John Wright well worth buying if you fancy a bit of homebrewing. 

Using a fork to strip the elderberries from the storks.

After gathering the berries the first job is to use a fork to remove the berries from the storks. This is one of those strangely enjoyable and therapeutic jobs until you notice the amount of spiders and other bugs running around in your berries at the back of your mind you know this is ok because the boiling water and sieving to come will remove any unwanted nasties but at the back of your neck you get a strange itching feeling as you think about how many of these bugs fell on your head while reaching for those high up branches.

There were two people even more excited than me about the appearance of elderberries and that was our two boys who remembered just how messy they got extracting the juice by squishing them underfoot. Infact the whole process of country wine makingis good fun for kids but they are even more impatient to try the end results than me so I make sure we have a carton of red grape juice ready for them to taste the next day because there is no way they are waiting a whole year.

Getting messy with elderberries.

Fego Food Co. 2015 Elderberry wine

 

So how did the 2015 batch turn out in the end? Thumbs up all round, we taste tested it against an inexpensive Chianti from the supermarket and it was to close to call but the elderflower was a clear leader in my eyes but this is something you will realise if you get into country wine making, other people havn't gone through the foraging, fermenting and agonising wait so what tastes like a beautiful fruity Fleurie to the maker only tastes almost as good as a cheap supermarket plonk to everyone else. I do however have two bottles left to keep until the 2017 harvest and I am confident that with an extra year to mellow and mature I will prove beyond doubt that 2015 truly was a great vintage year.