Tuscany, where our azienda agricola is located, seems to have all the luck. It has a pleasantly mild climate practically all year round; it boasts a cultural life without equal; it has hills, rivers, lakes, and mountains. Its 400 kilometer long coastline is bathed by two seas: the Ligurian and the Tyrrhenian. It even has a handful of beautiful islands that are famous worldwide.
If we consider that Tuscany’s population is about 3.7 million, we can say that about one fifth of them live along the coast. These (approximately) 740,000 people, with very few exceptions, love the sea profoundly, just as we in the north love our mountains, and they can visit the sea (both in summer and winter) to take the sun, dive in the waves, walk along the shore, have a bite to eat, and relax with good company.
However, a very small part of Tuscany’s inhabitants like to visit the sea alone, as far as possible from others (not unlike our mushroom hunters), in order to perform an activity totally foreign to our culture: to fish for clams (also known as cockles).
I noticed these men every time I went to the sea–the Tyrrhenian Sea, more specifically Marina di Vecchiano, Torre del Lago, Viareggio, Forte dei Marmi, and the Versilia in general–but I did not understand what they were doing. Still, with their permission (usually granted), I have been photographing them for a long time.
This year, I do not know exactly why, I decided to satisfy my curiosity and understand better why these fishermen do and why they defy the weather, so to speak. In effect, aside from the month of April (when the clams reproduce and fishing is prohibited), one can observe muscular men walking up the down in the sea, carrying with force and concentration a contraption that I had never seen before: “il ferro”–a sort of iron rake with a handle on one side and a bag on the other side.
In summer, you say, fine, but also in winter? In winter, they wear black wetsuits which, I hope for them, protects them from the cold during the time they spend with half of their body in the water. Who dares to return home without enough booty rich enough for two or three portions of spaghetti with clams? I hope not for them!
It seemed to me that raking these mollusks is a pastime to which the fishermen dedicate much passion and time. Certainly, things are not as they were thirty years ago, when an average family could live easily on the proceeds of a daily catch of 50 kilos. Nowadays everything is regulated: the type of rake, the size of the net, a maximum quantity of 5 kilos daily for amateur fishermen. The controls are rigorous and the fines are hefty. Even the territory where fishing is allowed is strictly limited.
For booty taken from the sea, besides, the fishermen must separate clams which are longer than 2 cm from those smaller than 2 cm, and the latter must be thrown back into the water. Often one also finds tiny crabs which are also too small to eat. Therefore, usually there remains only enough for a lunch or dinner for two or three. But what a meal! Spaghetti with clams, in fact, is part of the culinary heritage of the Versilia and the true conoisseur visiting these parts should never escape without trying this delicacy.
Even I wanted to cook a nice plate of pasta with clams, but I knew it was out of the question to ask one of the fishermen to sell me his catch; only over his dead body would I have (perhaps) succeeded. On the other hand, it is rare to find fishmongers who sell true Tuscan cockles (they often come from France or Spain), and so people must fall back on “regular” clams; they are also good, but they lack that touch of effort and passion that make their Tuscan sisters so special.
May the following delicacy at least once in your life end up on your table.
Ingredients for 4 persons:
250 gr of spaghetti N° 5
1,5 kg of clams
2 or 3 sprigs each of basil, marjoram, rosmary, and thyme
3 or 4 hot peppers (optional)
4 spoonfuls of extra virgin olive oil
1 glass of dry white wine
Let the clams sit in water for several hours, changing the water 2 or 3 times. Chop the herbs. Pour the oil into a large saucepan and, when hot but not boiling, add the herbs, the pepper, and the clams (removed from their water). Brown them for several minutes, then add the glass of dry white wine. Cook until the clams are open, and throw away any which remain closed. Remove the half-shells of the clams and put back into the saucepan. Boil the spaghetti in abundant salted water. Drain when it is still “al dente”. Mix the paste with the clams and let sit for a minute or two. Serve hot.
Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x