Whelk chowder?

Last week I wrote about how clam chowder isn’t made from quahogs harvested in Brunswick during the winter. That’s because our clam-flats are closed during the icy winter months to protect the baby clams from freezing. Maybe winter is the time to try something different anyway.

When I mentioned whelk chowder to a friend, she sheepishly said, “So, I have to ask you what a whelk is.” Unless you live in Asia where they are regularly harvested and cooked up, or you are an avid tide pooler or fisherman, you might not know what a whelk is. But, you’ve probably seen the telltale hole they drill in their prey. If you’ve ever found a snail or a mussel shell with a perfect tiny round hole in it – just the right size for threading a line through to make a necklace – you’ve seen the work of a whelk.

Whelks are impressive predators. They drill into the shell of their victims and then suck out their insides, leaving behind an empty shell – all this from an unimposing snail. A whelk is a type of snail, but not the docile kind that spends its time licking algae off the rocks with its rough tongue, or radula, leaving little serpentine trails behind. Whelks have a modified radula that is attached to a siphon that sticks out through a groove in its shell. It secretes a shell-softening chemical to get started, then uses its raspy radula to drill into the shell before injecting its prey with another chemical to paralyze it and then dissolve its innards so that they can be slurped out. The groove that its drill sticks out from is the key to telling it apart from its herbivorous cousin and favorite meal, the periwinkle. If you pick a little snail off the rocks and turn it upside down to look at the opening in the shell, it is more or less round on a periwinkle. But on a whelk there is a groove starting from one edge that looks like a little rolled up bit of shell.

Maine’s intertidal areas are filled with these tiny whelks, also known as dogwinkles. Their scientific name, Nucella lapillus, appropriately describes them. Nucella means “small nut” and lapis mean stone – a stony-colored little nut of a snail. Dogwinkles only get to be about an inch long at their biggest. Think of how many it would take to make a meal of them and all the work to get the meats out of their shells.

So, when I saw whelk chowder on the menu at Brunswick’s Vessel and Vine, I was surprised. “I got them from a lobsterman in town,” said proprietor Nikaline Iacono. That’s when I realized they were a larger species of whelk – the offshore waved whelk, Buccinum undatum, which looks more like a conch (Buccinum means trumpet). “I was buying them in a can to make scungilli, an Italian marinated salad when Tom came in and said, “I can get fresh ones for you.” Then one day he literally walked in with a bushel full.” That’s Tom Santaguida, a local lobsterman who is also a big fan of whelks. “I’ve been eating them for years,” he said, “and they’re really good. People don’t appreciate them enough.”

Nikaline has since put them on the menu a couple of times – as chowder and recently at one of Vessel and Vine’s monthly family dinners in a Spicy Korean salad of whelk, moon snail, and mussels salad. “People have really loved it in all the ways I’ve cooked it,” she says. “They’re willing to try weird things, which is fun.”

Most of the whelks harvested in Maine come from lobster traps, although some fishermen trap them using baited pots. Both methods of harvest require an endorsement on a commercial fishing license from the state Department of Marine Resources (DMR) so that they can track fishing effort. The whelks that stay in Maine are often pickled, a traditional method of preserving them in Downeast areas of Maine. The live trade is primarily to Asian markets, although chefs like Nikaline are starting to discover them.  “There are so many local products that we should be utilizing,” she says. “It’s fun in the winter to turn to seafood when other produce isn’t growing. It’s something we can source locally and we can get people excited about trying something new. That’s the role that places like mine can play.”

Tom has pulled his traps for the winter, so there won’t be any more whelks on Vessel and Vine’s menu until spring. “It will be interesting to see where they show up,” he says. “I saw a big change this fall when where they weren’t in their typical shallow rocky spots. They were off the ledges in deeper water. But, they’re coming back to the shallows now that the water’s cooled off again. As the water temperature changes, we’ll see where move.” Both Tom and Nikaline look forward to working together to get more people interested in trying new things from our coastal waters.

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