There are not many stereotypical ‘childhood memories’ used by writers that I can relate to, which is quite natural – not everyone is going to have had the same experiences as a kid. But one memory I can relate to, and fondly, is one I was delighted to come across in John Wright’s Edible Seashore, part of the River Cottage Handbook series and with a foreword from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
In fact, it is less of a memory and more something that I was introduced to as a child but still continue with my family today – collecting winkles from rock pools on the coast in Devon and Cornwall, to take home and eat.
Many people squirm at the idea, or are simply apprehensive about eating something that they have harvested themselves from the beach rather than picked up from a supermarket shelf. But this is as good as it gets – free food, and tasty free food at that!
Winkles are small shellfish, a little like a sea snail; they live in small, grey-black shells that cling to stones and rocks on the shore, and can be easily collected – they are sitting there in their millions waiting to be taken – when the tide is out.
Despite many people’s concerns, winkling is perfectly legal and, with the exception of in Devon and south Wales, there are no restrictions on what can and cannot be picked. According to Edible Seashore, winkles harvested in Devon must have a minimum diameter of 15mm and in south Wales 12mm.
Easily plucked from rocks and bagged up, once back home winkles need to be rinsed through in cold water to remove any sand or grit, and then boiled for no more than 5-10 minutes. A wives’ tale says the squealing noise you can hear while boiling is the sound of the winkles screaming as they boil to death!
Extracted from their shells with the help of a needle or safety pin, winkles are traditionally doused in pepper and vinegar before being eaten. For a different take, try serving them with garlic mayonnaise or with a Thai-style chilli dip made up of equal quantities of chilli powder, fish sauce and soy sauce. Dip liberally in whichever sauce you choose and enjoy the fresh taste of the coast – caught yourself and not costing a penny!