Sunday 22 April 2018

Walk backwards and whistle for razor clams

Detail from the cover of Seamus Mac An Iomaires book 'The Shores of Connemara'
Detail from the cover of Seamus Mac An Iomaires book 'The Shores of Connemara'

Joe Kennedy

Threebucket-dredging boats were standing a few hundred metres offshore like mackerel shoal searchers in the shelter of low cliffs between Balbriggan and Skerries on the Irish Sea coast.

I noticed them, from a window in a train smoothing its way to Dublin from the North, as they lay out in warm evening calm working the sandy bottom for a common shellfish.

I guessed their business. The boats were razor clam dredgers, using a method unknown in my youth along this shore when the only people looking for them were old men carrying buckets and walking slowly backwards along the tideline.

These days, razors, in their grey pencil shells, are another species in the life of the ocean being gathered in an ever diminishing supply of food from the deep. They are displayed on fishmongers' tables, tied in bundles, sought for export markets worldwide and prized by oriental cooks and restaurants specialising in fish dishes.

They were once regarded as a famine food, near the bottom of the chain like winkles and whelks, though not as low as barnacles in their rock-cemented finality. They could only be caught, singly, with great skill using a spear or hook-ended wire to plunge into the sand as the tide ebbed, their presence marked by tiny inverted nipple swirls.

Australians call them finger-oysters, in South Africa, stickbait - indicating a practical use - and in America they are jack-knife clams, an accurate description of a fast-moving creature that lives out of sight.

A razor has two valves held together by a strong ligament with the ends open like a tube. The flesh within is firm and white. It does not look like any other fish but is very much alive beneath the surface of the shore, sensitive to light and pressure. The slightest disturbance can make it use its extended muscular foot to plunge rapidly deeper. It is a fascinating creature and one had to be quick with a lance to catch it in the old way.

I remember old men walking backwards at the edge of the sea and suddenly, now and then, plunging a long spike downwards.

You did not disturb these men but watched closely to see what they were about, shuffling like snails in reverse. It seemed a simple way to fish so I got a piece of wire and tried my hand. I failed dismally.

The Galway writer and teacher Seamus Mac An Iomaire, possibly with tongue in cheek, advises hunters of the scian mhara to "whistle musically to catch it and sink your arms to the elbow in the hole you cleared". So he writes in The Shores of Connemara.

You may still look for the tell-tale keyholes but you will not now see any old men walking backwards and staring down mysteriously

Razors are now trawled for a catch which is mostly exported. If you fancy a taste, plunge the fish into boiling water until the shells detach. Remove the gut and chop as you choose. There are good recipes, especially in Alan Davidson's Atlantic Seafood Cookery. In Galway they are cooked with onions and potatoes "and other things added", says Mac An Iomaire. But, like mackerel, cook them promptly or end up chewing old tyres!

Sunday Independent

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