There is nothing more delicious than fresh seafood, and the freshest seafood is eaten the same day that it comes from the ocean. A fun way to obtain the very freshest seafood is by going to the beach and digging your own clams.

The best beaches for clamming are sandy, unpolluted, far away from industrial or residential areas, and well supplied with seagulls. In other words, they are the perfect place for a family outing. And the seagulls are important, too.

Seagull in FlightCredit: By Jiyang Chen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15507046

The Pacific coast has many beautiful sandy beaches from California to Alaska, and is home to several varieties of clams. The larger variety is the empire or horse clam, also known as the geoduck or gooey duck, which can be up to 6 inches across.

Boy Holding Large Geoduck ClamCredit: By Wilson, Doug, 1939-, Photographer (NARA record: 8464433) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While only a dozen or so geoducks re needed  to make a meal, they tend to be tough and chewy.

Butter clams, also known as littleneck clams, are much more tender, but are only about 2 inches across, so much more digging will be required.

 

Littleneck ClamsCredit: Public Domain via Wkimemedia Commons

 Razor clams are also excellent eating.

Pacific Razor ClamCredit: By RazorClam23 - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6328262

 

Warning: Before You Dig

Before you decide whether or not to go clam digging, you need to be aware of one crucially important safety concern.  Shellfish can be toxic at certain times of the year, due to Harmful Algal Blooms, commonly referred to as "red tide."  In warm weather there may be too much poisonous algae in the water. If ingested by shellfish, red tide will make the shellfish poisonous[1]. Red tide toxin cannot be destroyed by cooking, and eating contaminated shellfish may result in Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning. Symptoms include nausea, diarhoea, headaches, chills and muscle weakness[2].

It is therefore important to check with your local fisheries department to see if there is a shellfish advisory in place.  Often (but not always) there may be a warning sign on the beach.

Also, in some areas you may need to obtain a license for digging clams so, again, check with your local fisheries department.

How to Dig

Clams are dug just above the water line at low tide, so before you begin check the local tide tables and plan to get there about  half an hour before low tide.

The necessary equipment is quite basic. Wear a good pair of waterproof boots, and take along a long handled garden shovel and a large plastic (not metal) bucket. It also helps to have a keen pair of eyes (or several if you bring the family along).

Once at the beach, look for seagulls. The gulls know where the clams are, so go where you see them gathering. If clams sense vibrations above them, such as footsteps, they dig down into the sand, causing a squirt of water to come up to the surface. As you walk towards the seagulls stomp on the sand, look down and watch for the telltale squirts of escaping butter  clams or holes left by escaping razor clams.

As soon as you see a squirt or hole, take your shovel, dig like crazy, grab the clam as soon as you see it, and put it in your bucket. You might have to dig down up to a foot and a half. If your hole gets deeper than that, you have lost your clam, so look for another clam sign and try again. Keep digging until you are too tired, decide that you have enough clams for a meal, or reach the limit on your license.

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If Shoveling Seems Like Too Much Work

You Might Want to Get a Clam Gun

Danielson Clam Gun
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Finding Razor Clams with a Clam Gun

Fill your bucket with seawater to wash off your catch. Then to keep your clams happy and fresh refiill your bucket with fresh seawater.

How to Prepare and Cook Clams

Your clams have been living in sand. Consequently, when you get home you will need to clean them so that you do not end up crunching grit when you eat them.  Take them out of the bucket you brought them home in and let the sand settle out of the seawater for about 20 minutes.  While you are waiting clean the outside of the clam shells under running water. Once your seawater has settled pour off as much water as possible into another container, leaving and settled-out sand and grit behind, put the clams in to soak and leave them for another hour or so in a cool place. If a lot of nasty-looking mucus settles in the bottom of your container, carefully pour off the water and repeat the process[3]

The simplest way to serve butter clams is to steam them whole in their shells and drizzle them with butter (either plain or garlic flavored). However, while your catch is soaking, you can check the Internet for a variety of tempting recipes.

If you shuck the clams from their shells, you can prepare them in a variety of ways. You could serve them Italian style by simmering them in spaghetti sauce to accompany your favorite pasta. You could prepare them French style in a garlic and white wine sauce. Or you could make a North American favorite, clam chowder.

Clam Chowder Recipes

There are two basic types of clam chowder.

Boston Style Chowder (Serves Four)

Boston or New England style clam chowder is a white soup featuring potatoes in a cream base.

New England Clam ChowderCredit: Jon Sullivan. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The following recipe is based on one from the Boston Globe[4], which is probably as authentic as it gets.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound chopped clams
  • 1/4 pound bacon - diced
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 large potato, peeled and diced
  • 1 1/2 cups cream
  • Fresh thyme, salt and pepper to taste

1. Fry bacon until golden and lay the cooked bacon on a paper towel to drain.

2. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat.

3. Cook onions in bacon fat until soft. Add the potato, cover with water, and add thyme, salt and pepper. Cooking for the potatoes until they are almost cooked through (about 8 minutes).

4. Mix flour with a couple of tablespoons of water. Stir in some of the hot water the potato was cooked in and pour back into the pot. Cook and stir until the mixture thickens.

5. Stir in cream and clams and heat until steam begins to rise from the surface, but do not bring to the boil (about 3 minutes).

Manhattan Style Chowder

Generally less heavy than Boston style chowder, this is a tomato based red soup with a mix of vegetables such as celery, red and green pepper, onions, and carrots.

Manhattan Clam ChowderCredit: By Alexa - Manhattan Clam Chowder, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46461294

There are many versions of this soup. A typical recipe can be found here. Famous Louisiana chef Emeril Legasse has created another version which you can read here.

No matter which recipe you use for your freshly gathered clams, your meal will be enhanced by memories of the expedition to the beach you took to obtain its main ingredient.

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