The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.52
SPRING2017

A clam soup from the Hebrides.

Clams are not indigenous to the British Isles, at least not the clams that proliferate in New England mud flats, but cockles and winkles abound. Any of the three bivalve species will make a good Hebridean clam soup. If, however, you choose clams, choose small ones instead of quahogs. Four servings.


 

clams-n-scallops.jpg

  • about 32 small clams or cockles ( see the Notes)
  • 2 cups water
  • a generous Tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 or 2 chopped leeks
  • about 3 oz white wine
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • about ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • about ¼ teaspoon mace
  • some Worcestershire
  • 2 cups scalded milk ( see the Notes)
  • about ½ cup rolled oats
  • minced parsley

 

 

  1. Steam the clams in the water until some but not all of them open, usually in about 10 to 15 minutes ( see the Notes).
  2. Fish the clams out of the pot and put them in a big bowl. When the clams are cool enough to handle, shuck and then chop them. Be sure to retain their liquor for your broth.
  3. Pour the steaming liquid trough a strainer, taking care not to disturb any grit, sediment or other debris that may lurk at the bottom of the pot.
  4. Melt the butter in a heavy pot (sat iron is epochal) over medium low heat and cook the leeks until they soften: It will not take long. Do not let them brown.
  5. Add the wine to the leeks, increase the heat to high and reduce the liquid until nearly dry.
  6. Add the the clam broth, milk and seasonings to the leeks and bring everything to a boil.
  7. Stir the oatmeal into the pot, punch down the foam, simmer the soup until the oats have softened and thickened the broth, usually in about 10 to 15 minutes.
  8. Remove the soup from the heat, stir in the clams and serve with a scatter of parsley.

 

Notes:

-If you choose cockles you will want more of them, as many as twice the number of clams.

-If you wait until all of the clams open when steaming them, most will be overcooked to the consistency of rubber. The unopened ones will be fine, and will not be difficult to open.

-Our soup gets its inspiration from the merest sketch of a recipe by Nell Heaton, one of the rescue archeologists, all of them women, who worked in some obscurity to resuscitate traditional British foodways during the midtwentieth century. In terms of practical advice Heaton offers next to nothing. Her Traditional Recipes of the British Isles has no recipes in the common usage of the word, and her descriptions of foods frequently fail even to disclose their ingredients.

-According to Rupert Croft-Cooke, completing Heaton’s sketch for cockle soup produces something “truly excellent, especially if a little white wine is included in the ‘seasoning,’” and at least in terms of our improvised adaptation he is right. Croft-Cook was an adept cook who did not need to rely on recipes, and his English Cooking: A New Approach consequently spurns them too, so we should assume that he did indeed cook and enjoy a cockle soup with oatmeal.

-While it may appear idiosyncratic to Americans, oatmeal is a logical enough additive to shellfish soup, not only a thickener that stands in for the flour, potatoes, cornstarch or heavy cream more frequently found in hearty soups and chowders, but also a bedrock of Scots cuisine.

-Some nineteenth century American chowder recipes recommend cider, which would have been hard not sweet, as an alternative to wine, back when a chowder might resemble something decidedly rococo in contrast to the more modernist, minimalist versions familiar to contemporary diners. Cidery chowder or cockle soup with oatmeal tastes good too.