What’s not to love about clams?

Published 10:17 pm Tuesday, November 15, 2016

By Susan and Biff Andrews

Everyone loves clam chowder, though the specific type is in one’s heritage — be it New England cream style, Manhattan style with tomatoes or Chesapeake Bay or Hatteras style, clear and bacony with vegetables. We also love clams casino, clam fritters and clams raw on the half shell.

All of these dishes are made with quahogs — hard clams. And we live in clam central.

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There are other types of clams. Razor clams are long, thin and very fragile. Jackknife clams are shorter and more substantial. Softshell clams, known as steamers, seem to find the southern end of their range at Rudee Inlet, as I’ve never heard of any south of there but I’ve eaten some from there.

And they’re fine dipped in melted butter. But quahogs are the bomb, and delicious slurped, chomped or twirled on pasta.

Hard clams bury themselves 4 to 6 inches deep on shallow sand or mud flats with their two siphons up, or as deep as 40 feet offshore.

A clammer walks the flat with a rake having long tines and dredges up as many as he feels at the right depth.

In warm waters, over 72 degrees, a female may release 16 million to 24 million eggs per spawn, to be fertilized by free-floating sperm released by males. Fertilized eggs attach to something until they grow too heavy and drop to the sand to bury themselves.

They may live up to 50 years, if they escape their predators — seabirds, crabs, sea stars, oyster drills, skates and rays. And hungry humans.

Size matters when buying clams. And there are some differences of opinion as to terms for clams of a given size.

The official guide says:

  • Little necks: 7 to 10 per pound;
  • Cherrystones: Six to eight per pound;
  • Top necks: four per pound;
  • And chowder clams: two to three per pound.

Some people reverse the order of the first two categories, ranking cherrystones as the smallest. Then there are some regional whackos around the country with terms like “middle necks,” “pastanecks,” and “countnecks.”

When buying clams, be sure their shells are closed. If one is ajar, tap it, and it should shut immediately. Place them in a bucket of fresh water for an hour or two before opening, and they should purge themselves of any sand.

A tip about opening: An hour in the freezer, and they’ll open themselves without freezing solid, or get lethargic enough to open easily.

Virginia grows and sells lots and lots of clams. In 2014, growers sold 243 million clams worth $39 million, tops in the U.S.A. In that year, 490 million clams were “planted.”

Aquaculture is big business, especially on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Not surprisingly, the aquaculture epicenter has always been Cherrystone, across the creek from Cape Charles. They have now spread their operations up Route 600 to Oyster, Willis Wharf, Nassawaddox and harbors north.

So support your local clammers, or go clamming yourself. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries can tell you where to go.

And have some linguine with clam sauce; or some “cozze e vongole,” mussels and clams in white wine and fennel broth; or…

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.