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

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Why serving wine at room temperature is a myth

There is no such thing as room temperature: there are simply different rooms. 

As a child, I loved Aesop’s Fables – all except one. Like most children, I had an aggrieved sense of adults’ perceived superiority, and enjoyed seeing them outwitted or outthought, in fiction at least, by fellow inferior beings: children, ideally, but animals would do.

Voltaire thought that fables were invented by the first conquered race, because free men have no need to dress up truth in allegory, and maybe he was right: Aesop, after all, was a slave. But children have been shackled by dependence and freed by imagination since time began, so who knows? Perhaps the form was created by them.

The fable I disliked involved a Satyr and a Man. The latter blew on his fingers to warm them, then on his porridge to cool it; the former, appalled, refused to fraternise further with a creature who could blow hot and cold with the same breath. Even to my immature self, this seemed unjust. The Man was adaptable, not dishonest; the ambient temperature had changed, and his actions with it. And who is a Satyr – half man, half goat – to accuse others of being neither one thing nor the other?

It turns out that most modern wine waiters are Satyrs of a sort. If I had a pound for every bewildered burbling about “room temperature” when I’ve asked for a wine, often red, to be cooled, I would buy myself a Eurocave. (Actually, I already have one, and it stores all my wine at a beautifully consistent 12 degrees. But it is full, so I would buy another.)

There is no such thing, Satyrs, as room temperature: there are simply different rooms, and just as I despise a wine chilled beyond all flavour perception to a degree that could be termed English Stately Home, so I desire never again to sit in a breezeless interior in midsummer while someone serves red wine that practically steams in the glass.

The vine is an exceptionally adaptable plant, stubbornly digging its roots into chalk or sand or clay, and the eventual result is a liquid that contains, when well made, something of both the land that nourished it and the hand that made it.

Humanity, too, is malleable, often to a fault. We shuck off cardigans or pull on thick coats, and sometimes we do the one while wishing heartily that we were doing the other, and we drink something that briefly transports us to the place we yearn for. It is only Satyrs who lack imagination, although adults sometimes need theirs refreshed.

Voltaire agreed. “The Man was absolutely right,” he wrote scornfully of this fable, “and the Satyr was an idiot.” I suspect he and I would also have concurred on the question of wine temperature, although, if so, Voltaire had a problem. He was in the habit of serving his guests wine from Beaujolais, just south of Burgundy, which is made with the Gamay grape. If there is one red wine that needs to be served chilled, to about 11 degrees, it is this one. But for his own enjoyment, the great philosopher cravenly reserved fine Burgundy, and the aromatic complexity of that wine would have needed a couple of degrees more for its perfumes and flavours to evaporate sensuously into his hovering nostrils.

I picture him chilling the wines uniformly, then warming the contents of his own glass with a discreet exhalation of breath. Moral failings, as every Aesop reader knows, come in many forms. That is what separates us from the animals.

 

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 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear