Alive alive-o: cockles picked on the shore in Falmoth, Cornwall. Photo: Getty
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“A stained valentine, like a crash-landed space shuttle”: the beauty of bivalves

The poet Jen Hadfield describes foraging for clams, cockles and mussels in spring on the Shetland shores. 

“The winters must be very difficult in Shetland,” people often say to me. I think they imagine a Shetland winter as an ingrowing or hibernatory season. But my stomping grounds – mapped by quests and curiosities – are more likely to be domestic in the summertime: nest scrapes lined with milky chips of quartz, the intricate flora of bog and moor, pea plants in the garden.

A summer beach is bonny, but douce in comparison to the ravishing and slightly manic Shetland spring, the extreme highs and lows of the tides. As many birds are leaving as arriving. No more Northern Lights, or night skies in which Sirius is a disco ball of hot colour. Come summer, I’ll be foraging for puffballs, chanterelles and ceps, but winter is the time for rich pickings on the shore; the spring tides of March and April being the last chance to harvest bivalves until autumn.

In his poem “Collecting Pipi”, Glenn Colquhoun taps the apparently atavistic brain state of the forager: “They leave suckingly/and clatter/at the bottom/of the bucket./Quietly/the sea feels/with a tongue/round the holes/in her still-hidden/gums.”

Foraging – and I’m sure there are parallels with skip diving and hitting the sales – seems to engineer changes in brain activity and our perception of our place in the world. As a non-scientist, I would still dearly love to understand what’s happening; so, in the spirit of opportunism, please consider this a call for recommended reading about the neuroscience of human foraging. In the meantime, I’ll see what I can do with prose.

Consider a walk to the cockle beds in the lowest tides of March or April. The mud is littered with plundered white shells. Storm-waves have fossicked the bivalves from their shallow roosts and black-backed gulls and other opportunists have raided the survivors on the shore. One live cockle is half-buried in the mud under a mop of seaweed. Hardly a feed, so you return it regretfully to the shallows. It’s fine to be away from the desk: it’s more of a thought than a feeling. You scan the shore and horizon for otters, seals, birds.

Come along a second walk, now. Same low tide, a grund ebb, a greemster o’ an ebb. But we’re going further. That half-hidden cockle is the first of many and a perfect heart-shape, a stained valentine, like a crash-landed space shuttle. The cram of a live cockle in your hand is greed itself, leaking a little as it sooks its lingerie of translucent tissues back into its shell, folding them over frilled siphons and a glimpsed golden yolk. The bladderwrack is saying something in its click-and-trickle language.

As you stalk the mudflats, filling your bag, modest fountains spurt in your peripheral vision. What is that? A doubled pipe is poking out of the mud, scrunching up into a brown, muppet-like face. Clams are the hearts of the muddy shore; sucking in and discharging brine through aortic-looking tubes. Tapped with your finger, the thick siphon winces into the mud.

The ten-metre-wide bay is like a mouth that you probe as if with your tongue, lifting swaths of seaweed, shifting rocks. The more food you find – salty, muddy, muscly, plosive, protein-rich, heavy, free – the more you shrink. As you work the shallows, a pterodactyl-like heron lifts with world-weary wingbeats. Unnoticed, a furry wreath uncoils from its nest of bladderwrack and pours into the water, pelt melting to mercury. Your heart beats faster; you’re beginning to see.

The rocks are shellacked in sea lettuce, a single cell thick. In deeper water are sweet, salty, crunchy kelps, patterned with lacy bryozoans. The yellow feet of whelks smooch over blades of kelp like animate marshmallows. You find mussels in a groin of rock and tear at them. Hidden spines jab you back.

You will quit only when the tide chases you out. Otherwise, you would gather more than you can eat. At the cockle beds you are a hungry ghost, like those souls in Buddhist mythology who are perpetually unsatisfied, because their eyes are literally bigger than their stomachs. As a forager, to be hungry is to become small, but not necessarily to be diminished.

Jen Hadfield’s most recent poetry collection, “Byssus”, is published by Picador (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times