Each summer holiday, as a young boy, off I went to my great Aunts on the Kent coast. I have fond memories of those times in Folkestone and winkles in particular.
My family have a long association with Folkestone. My paternal great grandfather having been the master of a coastal vessel fetching coal from Newcastle in the late 1800s. His writing desk, converted from the ships radio operators station on his retirement, sits proudly in my living room.
This was the early 1960’s and the waters around the English coast were still plentiful with fish and shellfish. This was before the UK joined the EU and overfishing became commonplace.
In many ways, Folkestone especially around the harbour area has not changed very much since my childhood. Like many British seaside towns, Folkestone went into decline. However, I return to Folkestone regularly and a regeneration scheme is under way to bring life back to the area with a new seafront development.
Why do my memories of those summers combine staying in Folkestone and winkles? A Sunday evening tradition was a fish tea, meaning a plate of shrimps, winkles and brown crabs, but strangely no fish. This meant Sunday afternoons spent foraging amongst the rocks on the shore.
We would search the rocks pools, armed with a hand net and bucket, at low tide for our supper.
While my Aunt would tackle the crabs, my job was to collect the winkles and occaisonal whelks. Unlike limpets which seem to be welded to the rocks, winkles are easy to remove. It was easy to fill a small bucket quite quickly.
If our foraging was unsuccessful we could always resort to buying some. Seafood stalls lined the harbour as Folkestone was a thriving fishing port then, with an active fish market. Behind the market, was a shed with large steaming cauldrons to cook the landed crabs, lobsters and shellfish.
Our catch went into a large pot of boiling water to be cooked. After draining, winkles and prawns were steam dried. Crabs were allowed to cool in the cooking water.
When I serve crab, it’s usually with a cheese topping or Thermidor butter, but the basic method of cooking crab is unchanged.
Shellfish suppers can be quite a challenge for a young boy. You need a combination of dexterity to shell the prawns and remove the meat from a crabs legs and body, plus some brute force to crack the claws.
The Common Periwinkle Littorina littorea (Linnaeus, 1758)
Winkles however need a different technique entirely, involving a pin and a spiral motion to persuade the winkle to leave its shell.
When stranded above the waterline at low tide, a plate on their foot prevents winkles from drying out. You have to remove the footplate before you can “winkle” the meat from the shell. Us children used to find it very amusing to stick the footplates on their faces, like a bad case of measles!
After some effort, you now had your plate of winkles. Dousing them with vinegar and white pepper you could enjoy them with some brown bread and butter.
Nowadays, winkles are not that easy to find in shops or fishmongers in the UK. However, in Europe, winkles can be found on most fish counters.
Like most foraging from the seashore, winkles like other shellfish are not as abundant as they once were. You can still find and enjoy winkles, just be careful where you collect them from. Polluted water causes all shellfish to accumulate and concentrate toxins like heavy metals, so choose your beach with care.
Would you like to go winkle picking?
Winkles are found at rocky locations all around the UK, but in my mind I like to relive my childhood memories so Folkestone and winkles it is.
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