Vasteland 60, Rotterdam
(source source Herman Nearby)
‘Eating shellfish outside when the sun is out, is the best thing imaginable. All grabbing from the same bowl. The full flavours, the fresh air, a glass of dry wine, perfection. A classic in my businesses are the fried bouchots, mussels that grow on poles, bouchots, off the coast of Brittany. We call them “Boesjootjes”. I can still remember that I had them in my hands for the first time: what are those small things, is there actually meat in there? Had to be somewhere in the eighties. Dick Reitsma brought them along. He was a teacher who, during his holidays in Bretagne in France, discovered that trading shellfish is a lot more fun than teaching. I can imagine so. So he took a leap of faith, quit his job and went on the road with his live trade.’
‘He was a big hit in my book with those Boesjootjes. Those cooked-to-death meat flaps from jumbo mussels didn’t do it for me. His oysters, too, were very convincing. I think that flat oysters from Zeeland belong to the top. But back then the Eastern Scheldt wasn’t as clean as it is today. Reitsma persuaded a headstrong Zeeland restaurant owner to taste his Brittany shellfish. The owner was immediately convinced. If you can convince a stubborn Zeeland restaurant owner to work with French oysters, then you’ve got charisma. Needless to say, I was convinced as well. During the tasting we easily shovelled in thirty oysters apiece. So pure, such a clean flavour, it was a revelation. The Fines de Claires no. 3, flour them a bit en fry them in butter…delicious. Before we knew it, a whole basket was gone.’
‘Sadly, Reitsma is no longer with us. Luckily, he had passed on the Brittany virus to his son Ron. Ron was also a teacher, but his heart was closer to the catering industry and the Brittany fishermen than to tests and blackboards. Ron appeared to have the same feeling for quality as his father. We had to educate him a little, though. He came to deliver some stuff and wanted to head out again straight away. What do you mean, go home? You’re hungry, right? Stay, talk, we’ll get you something to eat.’
‘We’d put Ron in the corner of the kitchen and supplied him with plates of food and glasses of wine. That kitchen was small, so Ron had to chow down while standing up. He often didn’t come home before one o’clock. If he’s got varicose veins, I know why. ”All thanks to the Reitsmas, I have got quite a taste for shellfish and I want to share this. Eating shellfish from a tray or pan is limited to mussels in the Netherlands. And more and more people love to slurp an oyster from their shell or put their forks in a plate of pasta with vongole. But there is so much more to discover: tellines, cockles, carpet shells, dog cockles, scallops, smooth Venus-clams, winkles, warty Venus’, whelks, abalones, and clams. I stick to to the shellfish that taste the best, in my opinion. With shellfish, I honour the same principle as with most other products: keep it simple, try to capture the flavour, and don’t allow the product to disappear in a heap of flavours. Never cook too much shellfish at once; it’s better to do it in two rounds so that they are evenly cooked.
‘Then there’s the matter of spitting. Shellfish may contain sand. You can do either of two things. First, you can let the critters spit for ten hours in a container full of cold water of ten litres with at least ten grams of dissolved sea salt. This method works, but the taste suffers immensely. Shellfish are sold when they are extremely fresh. By allowing them to spit, you lose the subtle flavour of the seawater. Don’t feel like rinsing? Leave a bit of cooking juice with some shellfish in the pan after cooking. And remember: having the odd grain of sand in your mouth is all part of eating shellfish.
Vongole worked their way up in record time to the shellfish top five, right up there with oysters, scallops, mussels, and cockles. At least, when it comes to my restaurants. There’s no need to peddle the vongole. They are more popular than cockles by now. What you get with vongole is every bit as unclear as with tellines. One calls vongole carpet shells, the other a hard clam. Both are correct. But what is it that you’ve caught? The vongole looks like a small carpet shell. Which in turn looks like a hard clam. But those carpet shells can get pretty big. Maybe you get an ‘assorted’ net. Vongole can be prepared the same way as tellines. I like them in a classical way, with spaghetti. Boil some spaghetti. Meanwhile, cook the unopened vongole in olive oil met some chopped parsley and some chopped garlic. At the last moment, add some thin slices of red chilli. Heat the cooked spaghetti with the vongole, so that the juices are absorbed into the pasta. You can also add a small piece of butter for extra flavour. Cockles can be prepared in the same way as vongole and added to some pasta. Cook some diced tomatoes with the cockles.
Do you like cockles and vongole, try working with the wise carpet shells. You can add the same flavours to these shellfish as with the vongole. Try adding some lemon zest. A sauce of grey carpet shells tastes amazing. Add a handful of carpet shells to fish stock and eat the rest as an appetizer. You can also get the cheaper pink carpet shells. Pink carpet shells can be prepared as you would do snails: open them up, cover them in herb butter, and put them under a grill. Has your fishmonger finally been persuaded to sell some tellines? Order a bag of warty Venus’ too, they can come on the same delivery. I’d eat them raw.
Dog cockles are sizeable shellfish and have a crunchy bite without being too rubbery, if you cook them properly. Pry them open, rub some olive oil on the meat and briefly put them under a grill. Or you dice them and prepare like in the recipe.
The smooth Venus-clams can be prepared, if they’re still small, as vongole. Smooth Venus-clams from the Mediterranean have an orange-coloured tongue. You don’t see smooth Venus-clams often, not even in restaurants. If you stumble upon them on your holidays, don’t hesitate and buy them. They can be ordered at the fishmonger as well.
Razor shells can be collected from the sand with a shovel. Eating them raw is tasty. If you cook them, do so very briefly. They become leathery very quickly. Razor shells go very nicely with Asian flavours like soy sauce and chilli peppers.