Foraging is one of the great joys of a trip to the beach. Beach combing for driftwood is all very well, but nothing beats a bit of hunter-gathering and kids in particular love raking for cockles . . .
Our Neanderthal ancestors must have struggled to find food for much of the year, but the coast is always rich in calories. Cockles were particularly valued and remained staples for the urban poor during the Industrial Revolution. Well after the Second World War they were sold in huge numbers in London’s East End, Liverpool and the cities of the North East, but recently they have fallen out of favour in Britain (although they are still highly-rated in much of Europe).
This is a pity because they are both delicious and plentiful. They live beneath the sand around the low water mark and although generally invisible, their presence is often marked by the broken shells left by oystercatchers or by thin films of green plankton on muddy sections of beach.
Although anyone can collect cockles for personal use in the inter-tidal zone, it is a good idea to ask locals for advice. This not only saves time, but reduces the risk of upsetting sensitivities and can reveal tips about tides and sewage outfalls. Gathering them can also be potentially dangerous because they favour flat sandy beaches where the sea can move in rapidly – as a group of 21 Chinese cocklers found to their cost in Morecambe Bay in 2004.
Armed with a little local advice, harvest them with a blunt-tipped rake, but only take the bigger specimens. Keep the haul in a bucket of seawater for a few hours to allow them to disgorge any sand and before cooking, check each is tightly closed. Then plunge in boiling water for four minutes. Eat immediately or serve in cream on pasta or on toast mixed with crisp lardons of smoky bacon.