BY NICK MACMAHON | 26 APRIL 2019
The humble British sea snail. Mostly thought of as cheap seaside fare served in a styrofoam cup with a toothpick and a heavy dousing of vinegar and pepper. Whelks or anything in the snail family can be a pretty hard sell if you haven’t tried them before or if your previous experiences of eating overcooked, chewy molluscs left you less than impressed. Like a lot of shellfish, they can be tricky to cook right and will overcook very easily. There is a fine line between the delicious, sweet meat of whelks and something that is reminiscent of eating a rubber band found in a rock pool.
I would include their lack of visual appeal as a reason for their unpopularity but then again, look at the massive popularity of oysters. I think the reason lies for one, in its history of being a traditionally cheap seafood snack (the words ‘cheap’ and ‘seafood’ when put together doesn’t do well to stimulate appetites). Also, whelks are all too often just not cooked very well.
We have a wealth of whelks available to us in the UK - over 10,000 tonnes of whelks are caught per year just in the Bristol Channel. Whelks are caught using low-impact fishing practices, they are highly sustainable, locally sourced and have great health benefits, being low in fat and high in vitamin B12. They really should be given a second chance.
Whelks are usually sold either live, in the shell or shelled and cooked. For the best experience, and to be able to control how they are cooked, you really should buy live whelks in their shells.
Soak the whelks in water for about 30 minutes, then scrub off any mud that might still remain on the shells. Drain and place in a pot. Cover with cold water and add a couple of tablespoons of salt. Heat over medium heat. Bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for 15 minutes. Draining the whelks and now either serve in the shell or remove each whelk from their shell before serving.
After removing the whelks from the shell, take out the small, solid flat disc from one end, often called its ‘foot’. On the other end of the whelk is a darker part that can also be removed. Now the whelk is ready to eat.
That is the most basic method of cooking whelks. You can add more flavour to whelks at two stages, obviously adding some sort of dressing or sauce once cooked, but you can also add flavour during cooking by adding aromatics to make a broth for the whelks to cook in. For a traditional style, add things like stock, white wine, bay leaves, peppercorns and thyme. Or for a more Asian inspired flavour, try garlic, ginger and lemongrass.
After cooking, add any kind of dressing or sauce that you want–the key is adding fat and flavour.
The classic flavour pairings with whelks are butter and garlic, or the classic British-style of vinegar and pepper. They are definitely great options, but don’t stop there, the flavour combinations are endless. Think of it the same way you would think about serving other shellfish like scallops or mussels.
Try out combinations like;
Brown butter with lemon, capers and mustard.
Fried pancetta, rosemary and parsley.
Chinese chilli crisp chilli oil.
If serving whelks in the shell, mix the whelks and dressing in a big bowl to combine and get the dressing into the shells. Or if you have removed them from the shells already, either drizzle the dressing over the whelks or mix in a bowl before transferring to a serving plate.
When cooked well and paired with big flavours, whelks are delicious. A flavour reminiscent of scallop, or even lobster. They have a delicious shellfish sweetness to the meat and, like oysters, a hint of the sea. The texture of a properly cooked whelk should be like tender octopus. It definitely has a certain toughness and bite to it, but not at all rubbery or chewy. If you get it right.
The Marine Conservation Society UK (MSC) who are the authority on buying fish in season lists whelks as available every month apart from October, November and December.
Live whelks are not always easy to find as there is generally not a great enough demand for them. Ask your local fishmonger if they ever get them in. Fishmongers that sell at farmers markets are your best bet.