On a post about Labor Day weekend it seems appropriate to step back and give you a glimpse of the people behind the food. Herewith, a taste of our visit to the Woodbury Shellfish aquaculture grant in Wellfleet. Barbara and Patrick Woodbury are the sort of people you almost never hear about unless you’re in the food business. They are local and organic down to the soles of their waders. On two and half acres of Cape Cod tidal flats they produce hundreds of thousands of the most prized littleneck clams in New England.
First, the basics. There are three ways to get clams–you can “scratch” them yourself, in designated intertidal areas, armed with a bucket, a clam rake and a shellfish license; you can drag for them in deeper water with a boat and a bottom dragger; or, if you’re dedicated and willing to be outdoors on days when the sun and wind can peel the skin off your face and you have to step around the spears of ice left behind by January low tide, you can raise them. Oh, and you need 2 – 3 years while they grow from chili flake seedlings to the flattened walnuts of legal size.
Woodbury’s has been wholesaling littlenecks to upscale off-Cape restaurants for almost 25 years. As someone who has tasted shellfish from the entire coastal perimeter of the U.S. I think Woodbury clams are about as close to an iconic embodiment of the cold-water quahog as you can get–briny, firm textured, with a distinctive, intense flavor of, well, clams. They are a bracing wake-up call, a bugle riff announcing the arrival of the Atlantic in your mouth. They make clams from Virginia, Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, or other warm-water environments seem slack-jawed and a little slow by comparison. A Woodbury littleneck is concentrated, with a clear beginning, middle and end, with just a hint of pleasant chewiness.
These qualities have not escaped the notice of connoisseurs. Were it not for their texture and flavor Wellfleet clams couldn’t compete in the larger world of bivalve aquaculture. The competition is too big, the margins too small, particularly for New England clam farmers, who tend to be Lilliputian when compared with their warm-water cohorts. Florida littlenecks grow from seedling to legal size in half the time as their Massachusetts peers. The entire town of Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, has about 200 acres of coastal flats dedicated to aquaculture, parceled out into grants ranging from 5 acres (generous first grants, established 25 years ago, before anyone knew the business would catch on) to plots as small as an acre. The acreage of a single clam farm in Virginia may exceed that of all the Wellfleet grants combined. With that kind of competition, Woodbury’s has to offer something that stands out, a product that clients will purchase at a premium.
We happily accepted the Woodbury’s invitation to meet them on their grant, where along with our friend Steve Nill, we could lend a hand in “plant out,” transferring some 70,000 thumbnail-sized baby clams out of their nursery trays (called “suitcases” by the Woodbury’s) into a full-sized “row,” a 14 by 100 foot bed where they would remain until harvested, 2 or 3 years from now.
We had a great day. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.
Back at Steve’s house in Barnstable that same evening, we grilled about 5 or 6 dozen clams as described in the recipe. Then, figuring that lots of people would shy away from opening their own clams before grilling, we tried grilling some whole. As they popped open I’d lift them off the grill and set them aside to cool before scraping clams and juices into a bowl, to which Jody added fresh pepper and evoo.
I brought the bowl into the house–people were already digging into the sheet pan of grilled clams on the half-shell–and cut a large round of country style bread into thick slices. The aroma coming out of the bowl was enough to draw people over. Whatever reservations anyone had about a collective clam bowl disappeared as everyone grabbed a slice of bread and plunged it into the bowl. Several dozen clams–and their juices–vanished in about five minutes. Too fast for me to clean my hands and reach for my camera.
Maybe next year.
Note: For more pictures of the Woodbury plant-out, go to my flickr account and check out the set, Woodbury Shellfish.
Grilled Clams on the Half-Shell
Makes 40 grilled clams
- Aluminum foil
- 40 littleneck clams (3 1/2 – 4 pounds), scrubbed
- Freshly ground white pepper (if you only have black, use that)
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Cover a sheet pan with several pieces of aluminum foil crimped into channels to hold the clams (see photos).
- Prepare a hot grill. While the grill is heating open the clams. If you’re unfamiliar with opening clams check out the photographs and Jody’s comments below.
- Begin by placing a clam flat against your palm and pressing the thin edge of a knife blade where the two halves of the shell meet at the outermost rim. Squeeze the knife until it slides between the shells. Once the blade is all the way in, angle the knife so it scrapes across the inside of the top shell, cutting the muscles on each side. At this point the clam should open. Twist off the top shell and discard, trying to spill as little juice as possible. Place the opened clam on the sheet tray in one of the foil troughs. Repeat with the remaining clams.
- Sprinkle the clams with pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
- Place the clams on the grill. Cook just until the olive oil and juices begin to bubble. Don’t cook the clams to death.
- Using tongs, carefully return the clams to the sheet pan and invite folks to cluster around and help themselves, or place clams on a platter and serve.
Fresh clams clam up.
Imagine, for 3 years you’ve been happily lying around in soft muddy sand, washed and fed by in- and out-going tides, and your only job is to grow. Suddenly, without warning, an aggressive metal hand scratches you out of the sand and into a bucket.
You’ re rinsed, tossed around in the air, bundled up tight in a nylon bag, boxed and then set in a cold dark box to wait until someone wants to take a knife and split you open. You’d hold those two little shells together as tightly as possible too.
So, be sure your clams have rested for several hours after harvesting so they relax a bit. If they’ve rested a day or so, it will be even easier.
You can open a clam from the front or from the back. Some shucking pros open them from the back through the hinge that holds the two shells together. It’s that soft dark line. You press a blunt clam knife against the hinge until the shells separate.
I was taught to open clams from the front (the rim opposite the hinge) and still prefer this approach, the method described in the recipe. Leave the attack-the-hinge approach to the pros.
When Ken and I wrote IN THE HANDS OF A CHEF (William Morrow, 2002) I relied on a classic blunt clam knife. These days I find it easier to use a sharp, thin bladed pairing knife.
More shucking tips:
- Be sure the clams are cold. A cold clam is a relaxed clam. Some people like to put the clams in the freezer for fifteen minutes (no longer) to numb them up so they don’t squeeze as tightly together. I find that keeping the clams in the refrigerator works as well, as long as you don’t give them a wild jostling while taking them out.
- If you’re new to opening clams use a shucking glove or a heavy towel to hold the clam so that if your knife does slip, you’re protected.
- Find the sweet spot where you can get the blade between the shells with minimal pressure and then just press the knife into the clam.
- If the clam won’t let you in the first time, put it aside. It’s going to close up tight and if you try again to open it, you run the risk of the knife slipping off the shell and into your hand.
- If you find you have a pile of tight clams, you’ll have to learn to open them from the hinge, grill them whole, or heat some extra virgin olive oil with chopped garlic in a saute pan, add the clams with some white wine and herbs and steam open (which isn’t the worse thing in the world).