Memories of Winkles

The Common Periwinkle Littorina littorea (Linnaeus, 1758)

I was packed off to my great Aunts in Folkestone on the Kent coast, each summer holiday, because this gave my aged Grandmother a break from bringing up her grandson.

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.

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.

Folkestone Harbour

I am lucky enough to possess his writing desk, which was converted from the ships radio operators station on his retirement.

A plate of seafood with shrimp, winkles and brown crab was a common tradition on a Sunday evening, which meant Sunday afternoons were spent foraging.

We would search the rocks pools, armed with a hand net and bucket, at low tide for our supper. Winkles were plentiful and just had to be pulled from the rocks to which they were attached.

Our catch was cleaned and put into a large pot of boiling water to be cooked. The winkles and prawns were allowed to steam dry. The crabs were allowed to cool in the cooking water.

If our foraging was unsuccessful we could always resort to buying some. Many seafood stalls could be found at the harbour. 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.

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.

Winkles however need a different technique entirely, involving a pin and a spiral motion to persuade the winkle to leave its shell.

Winkles have a plate on their foot that prevents them from drying out if they are stranded above the waterline at low tide. These have to be removed 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 spots!

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. If you pop across the channel, winkles can be found on most fish counters and are enjoyed widely.

Like most foraging from the seashore, winkles like other shellfish are not as abundant as they once were. Winkles can still be found and enjoyed, 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.


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