Living only a mile or so from the sea, or at least the Bristol Channel which is a big estuary, we're lucky to have winkles and dog whelks within easy walking distance. Although we also find the larger empty shells of whelks, along with the occasional bi-valve cockle shell, I've yet to find any living specimens for our table. The whelks, I'm sure, live out of reach in deeper water and would need a boat to harvest.
The whole family working hard
The winkles, or periwinkles as they are also known, grow bigger and better closer to the low water mark during spring tides, when the water goes out furthest; so tide-tables and wellies are advised. And beware being cut off when the wet stuff decides to return.
Winkles like lots of rocks, making their often grey-green, barnacle covered shells hard to spot against our local algae covered limestone. Within minutes of searching however, ones eyes learn to detect the little treasures and suddenly they're everywhere.
Winkle to the left - dog whelk to the right
We also find lots of dog whelks living amongst the rocks and bladderwrack. Dog whelks are a much smaller cousin of the whelk. We won't be gathering any for the table in future as they aren't a great favorite with the family on account of their tough texture. Interestingly, dog whelks are carnivores, whose specialized mouth-parts include an auger-like drill that can penetrate barnacle and mussel shells: and they look so innocent!
It takes a twist of the wrist
We leave our winkles to soak in fresh water overnight to shift some of the grit. Debs sometimes makes a simple stock using some salt, a roughly chopped onion and carrot, a bay leaf, some diced parsley and plenty of black pepper. having brought the stock to the boil she lets it simmer for about ten minutes before returning it to the boil again and adding the winkles for five minutes of hard cooking. Thanks are due to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's River Cottage Cookbook for that idea. Thus cooked we eat them hot and as they are. The traditional way, boiled in salted water and dipped in malt vinegar also works well for me.
However they are cooked, a deft hand with a pin is required to tease them from their shells. Map pins work admirably, providing a little handle to make the work easier. Discard the scaly shell door, which comes off the cooked meat easily and is inedible. Winkles are definitely worth the effort, and both the gathering and slow eating must have enormous therapeutic value, to say nothing of all that protein.