Downeast Maine is a curious place: a meandering coastline creates myriad bays and watery nooks; the damp air shrouds the forests in an eery mystic; and a forceful tide, like clockwork each day, empties the coves to expose vast, muddy, weed-shagged flats. It is these tidal flats that are home to a feast of local marine produce, many of which are harvested by locals such as Roland, who we met on our trip to Sipp Bay near the Canadian border. A fire chief by trade and Pasmaquoddy Indian by blood, Roland often rakes these flats for cook ups and family feasts. Clamming – for clams – and wrinkling – for periwinkles – are common livelihoods in this region, where local jobs are scarce and local seafood harvesting provides a chance to earn enough to feed one’s family.
On a typically misty afternoon, my travel companion and I joined Roland and two local conservation workers at low tide to learn the art harvesting the flats and gather dinner. The process is strenuous for the clammer: after identifying holes in the mud flat – where the clams squirt water up – the stumpy rake is thrown into the mud and dragged to dislodge the rock and sludge.
Amongst the broken shell, stones and baby clams you can pull out some decent sized shellfish – around two inches is the going length for market clams. Trudging gingerly through the mud, this seemingly barren landscape comes alive: mussels cluster together in flower-like clumps, bloodworms squirm back into the mud as they are unturned, seaweed stripes the flats in parallel patterns. Periwinkles can be found dotted amongst the fray, stuck to rocks or shells.
After collecting enough for each of us to have a hearty sample, we headed back to start a fire and prepare the main event. For the unacquainted, a good ole lobster bake involves heating a fire until red hot, then covering the coals with seaweed, layering the bugs on top, and covering with more seaweed to seal in the heat. Most people have their own little tricks, like adding corn and potatoes or covering with al foil. The smoke of the fire and salty weed gives the lobster a distinct, fresh flavour and – if cooked right – divine texture.
The periwinkles and clams only needed a few minutes in a steamer and they were ready to dissect and dig in. A few tips to ensure a delicious meal:
• Warm a little pan of butter for dowsing all seafood
• Save the water the clams were steamed in (the clam juice) to wash each clam in and remove any sand before eating
• Watch to remove the little plates on the periwinkles – a toothpick comes in handy for these
• Have a shells bin handy for all the waste
• Oh, and prepare to get messy!
The periwinkles were a first for several of us, and exceeded expectations. Remarkably palatable, they are more akin to a sinewy mussel than a snail. As one fellow diner noted, it certainly is an interactive meal – a lot of cracking, pulling and prying is involved, creating a sensory experience that goes far beyond simple taste. But if you are persistent enough, you can dig out tender meat from behind the head, in the bug’s spidery legs and, of course, in tail and claws.
After a physical feast, with paper towels and shells piled high and bellies full of satisfaction, there is nothing left to do but return to the fire and watch as the racing tide creeps up and begins to engulf the flames, carrying the last floating embers over the flats and out to sea.