Monday, October 8, 2012

Coques. Cockles. Coques on Your French Seafood Menu.

Coques Cockles.
Behind the French Menu
Bryan Newman

   Cockles are close cousins of the clam family.  For those who know old British and Irish pub songs the coques on your French menu are the same cockles that Sweet Molly Malone sung about in the street of Dublin's fair city. On French menus coques is the accepted name;  however, local names such as Henon or Maillot  may make the menu in small towns along France's Atlantic coast.

Photograph courtesy of Benjamin Féron.
   When the cockle shells are on your table as part of a dish’s decoration the shells will vary from white to dark ivory, sometimes brown; they are somewhat triangular in shape with pronounced ribs.
   For over 100 years in the UK and Ireland cockles were traditional pub fair  the usual recipe only required boiling in water with salt and pepper; when ready the cockles were sprinkled with vinegar.   The boiled cockles were eaten hot or cold with bread and butter. Not any longer; as cockles are returning to the British menu, now like in France, cockles will be boiled, but that will probably be in an herb based bouillon. As British chefs add cockles to the menu of upscale restaurants the prices go up and the recipes leave tradition behind.
   In France cockles will on the menu in nearly every seafood restaurant; then on a seafood platter they may be served raw like clams or oysters.  Cockles may be fried with garlic, served with pasta, cooked in white wine or grilled on skewers. Cooked cockles may be cut up and served cold in salads, cooked with fish or other shellfish or served on their own with fresh mayonnaise. 
   One word of warning: In French the word coque also means shell and so on French menus the word  coque will also be used for œuf à la coque, boiled eggs, crabe préparé en coque, crab prepared in its shell. With many references to shells on French menus order coques with care.
A platter of cockles and mussels cooked in white wine, 
Photograph by Cooking etc.

   For those new to cockles consider them a member of the clam family.  The menu may offer:
  Fricassée Marinière de Coques Bretonnes aux Pâtes Fra iches- Cockles from Brittany stewed in white wine and served with fresh pasta.
    Risotto aux Coques- A cockle risotto.
 Pâtes Fraîches au Coques- Cockles with fresh pasta.
Photograph courtesy of Cremo.
   Petite Salade d’Épinards aux Coques et Vinaigrette à la Noix – A small spinach salad served with cockles and flavored with a vinaigrette sauce made with walnut oil.
    Filet de Saint Pierre à la Plancha et Crémeux de Coques- Filet of John Dory; the fish is cooked on a plancha, and served with a creamy cockle sauce. A plancha is a very thick iron plate much used in Basque and southeastern French cooking.
Cockle diggers at sunset.
Photograph by courtesy of Tim Bradshaw.
   The cockles on your plate or plates are not sea-farmed from birth like France’s oysters and mussels; rather cockles are gathered  when fully grown, or gathered wild when young, and then re-sown in areas where there is plenty of their favorite food, plankton. 
A  flat bottomed cockle boat.
Photograph by courtesy of Mundoo.
   France has its own cockles but not enough to meet even half the local demand; nearly 50% of the local requirements are imported, a large part from the UK. The most famous cockle growing area in the UK is Penclawdd in Wales; there, on the Burry Estuary, the young cockles that will be re-sown, may only be gathered by hand to insure a sustainable source.  (German - herzmuschel), (Italian - cuore edule or vuori di mare), (Spanish - berberecho or croque).