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Clams and Mussels and Oysters, Oh My!

 by Tarla Fallgatter (

 The delicious flavors of the sea are not easily forgotten.  A few years ago I arrived in Paris to visit a friend and as I walked from L'Etoile towards her apartment I noticed displays upon displays of fresh shellfish beckoning to me and I suddenly felt an incredible craving for a dozen fresh oysters. After stopping by a small hotel to leave my bags ``for a few minutes," I walked quickly to a little outside restaurant and ordered those dozen fresh oysters. Out they came on a platter sitting on a bed of ice and I can still remember how fresh and exactly like the sea they tasted.

The world of shellfish must surely be one of the most exciting for the gourmet cook.  Crustaceans, mollusks and edible sea creatures of all kinds show off their wondrous shapes and colors and, as fishing and transport become more sophisticated, the variety available increases.  As the seasons change it seems there is always something new to inspire us.  However, shellfish are shrouded by mystery.   Which part of a crab is edible, how do I check if a mussel is really fresh, what is the best way to tackle an octopus?   In this article we will cover the mollusks (clams, mussels, oysters, cockles and scallops). Next month we'll dine on crustaceans (crab, lobster and shrimp).


 All mollusks are invertebrates with bodies divided into four sections:  the head with the mouth opening and often highly developed sense organs, such as tentacles and eyes; the muscular foot, which provides for movement; the intestinal sac, which contains the digestive organs, and the ``mantle," which encloses the mantle cavity and secretes the shell.  The most striking feature of most mollusks is the shell, which not only provides protection and sturdiness but also replaces muscles.  The shell usually outlives the animal it houses and is often all the evidence we have of a particular animal.  These shells have always been a source of fascination for collectors, with the prettiest and most unusual being catalogued or turned into jewelry.  Seashells are also still used in some primitive cultures as everyday utensils, such as knives, spoons and dishes.  Mollusks can be classified into Gastropoda–creatures living in single shells–and Lamellibranchiata   (or bivalves)–those with double-hinged shells.

 Gastropodainclude limpets, cockles, whelks and periwinkles.  They are a small, modest group of creatures, not renowned for their great eating qualities. 

Lamellibranchiata (bivalves) are a much larger group and include oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, abalone and razor shells.  Many of the mollusks in this group are caught in great abundance, but tend to be ignored.  The oyster alone does not suffer neglect–its subtle flavor is renowned the world over.

          The shell of bivalves consists of two shells, or valves, joined by a dorsal hinge.  When closed, the shells completely cover the shellfish. On one side is a hinge, formed by interlocking teeth on either valve.  The two halves of the shell are closed by a muscle made up of two parts; one part is used to close the shell quickly, but this uses a lot of energy and soon becomes tired; the other half expends little energy and is able to keep the shell closed for weeks on end.  Both reactions are essential for the animal's survival–the quick closure as a protection against enemies and the prolonged closure as a protection against ``siege" and to prevent enemies, such as starfish, from prying the shell open. 

          Mollusks tend to be shore-dwelling creatures.  Bivalves, such as mussels and oysters, are often found clinging to rocks at the mouth of rivers.  As a rule, bivalves are immobile.  When they do move, it is by means of the foot, which is stretched as far forward as possible, and then anchored to the ground, so that the creature can drag itself slowly forward. Some species, however, are incapable of movement.  These include edible mussels and oysters.  As they cannot move voluntarily they usually stay on the same rock for their entire lives.  Cockles, periwinkles and whelks can leap short distances and they move by the thousands with the tide. Clams and cockles are usually harvested from beaches at low tide. Scallops can swim.

Mollusks are usually eaten raw or very briefly cooked. They must therefore be very fresh. Mussels, oysters and clams are usually sold live.  Their shells must be tightly closed and any that are open should be tapped sharply. If the shell closes they are fine to eat; if it remains open this means that the shellfish is dead and must be discarded.  Shellfish should always be eaten fresh.  If you can't be sure of freshness, don't eat it.

          Because mollusks such as mussels and clams tend to live in shallow sandy waters, they tend to take sand and other particles into their shell when they feed.  When placed in a bucket of cold salted water with a sprinkling of oatmeal or flour, the shellfish will feed on the oatmeal and excrete the dirt.  Scrub the mollusk shell thoroughly using a stiff brush to remove grit and barnacles.

          Oysters are usually eaten raw, in the half shell with their juices.  Cockles and razor shells can also be eaten raw and are often sprinkled with lemon juice or vinegar.  Most other mollusks are cooked before eating.  Mussels and clams are usually steamed in their own juices, but they are also delicious baked and stuffed, or used in soups and stews.  The delicate flavored scallop requires careful cooking to protect its soft texture and keep it from becoming rubbery.


 Clams are available throughout the year but are at their best in the autumn. There are four major categories of Atlantic clams:  hard-shell also called quahogs, soft-shell, surf clams and razor clams. The smallest quahogs, called littlenecks, are about 1-1/2 to 2-1/4 inches across and weigh roughly 2 ounces each.  (You will get from 7 to 10 per pound.)  Even though they are the smallest, littlenecks are the most expensive, probably because they are the most tender and have the sweetest flavor.  If you like raw clams, littlenecks are best.

          Medium-size quahogs (5 to 7 clams per pound) are called cherrystones.  Cherrystones can be eaten raw or cooked in the same way as littlenecks. They are also the perfect size for stuffing.

There are also four kinds of Pacific clams:  Pacific littlenecks, Manila clams, geoducks and horse clams.

Littlenecks are one of the most common Pacific Coast clams but don't confuse Pacific littleneck clams with the unrelated small Atlantic quahog that goes by the same name.  Manila clams are not native to the American Pacific Coast but have rapidly become one of the most important Pacific species.  Although Manila clams can grow quite large, the tastiest are about 1 inch wide and are sold by the pound.  Manila clams can be eaten raw and are especially good when steamed.

          Clams are usually steamed like mussels in their own juices and the liquor served as a broth to dip bread or clams in.  They are often eaten raw like oysters. They are particularly good in soups and chowders; baked and stuffed in their half shells; used in sauces to serve with rice or pasta; battered and deep-fried; or in pies.  Sometimes the simplest recipe is the most delicious:

 Steamed Clams

 2 Tbsp. butter

1/4C diced shallots

2 1/4 lb. clams

sprig of thyme

sprig of Italian parsley

1 bay leaf

6 Tbsp. water

6 Tbsp. white wine

1/2 stick butter, soft

freshly ground pepper

crusty French bread


Wash the clams thoroughly several times in cold water and drain in a sieve. Melt the butter in a pan and add the shallots. Sauté one minute, then add the clams, thyme, parsley and bay leaf.  Pour on the water and wine, cover and steam for 8 to 10 minutes, until the clams have opened.  Add butter and freshly ground pepper and serve with crusty French bread.

MAKES: 4 servings


 The mussel is a familiar sight in fish stalls and markets throughout the autumn and winter.  Often called the poor man's oyster it provides a delicious meal at relatively low cost.  The name mussel is derived from the Latin word mus meaning mousse, perhaps because of its shape.

          The thin crescent-shaped shell of the common mussel is usually dark blue or blackish. Mussels cling in cluster to rocks, although commercially they are more likely to be hanging from ropes attached to stakes in mussel farms.  Cultivating mussels on hanging ropes is a method that works particularly well in Rias, a part of the Spanish Atlantic Coast.  The sheltered situation of this clam bay and the constant exchange of water through the ebb and flow of the tide encourage the build-up of plankton, the mussels' main food.  Today there are over 3,000 firmly anchored floats along the coast of Galicia, from which the mussel-covered ropes are suspended.  Because of the extremely favorable conditions in Rias, the mussels grow very quickly so that, after two or three moves of position as they grow, they reach a commercial size of 3 inches in length after only eight to nine months.

          The ropes, which can weigh up to 265 pounds, are hauled into boats and stripped of their harvest. Mussels to be sold fresh are washed and usually packed on board.

          The New Zealand greenlip mussel is large and has a particularly rich flavor. These are cultivated in much the same way as in Spain but the approach is somewhat more modern. The calm, crystal-clear waters of the Marlborough Sound provide ideal conditions for this method of farming. So-called ``longlines" are stretched directly below the surface of the water and from these are suspended the long, vertical ropes on which the green New Zealand mussels are grown.  They take about 18 months to reach their full size of about 4 inches.

Mussels are most often steamed in their own juices or with wine and garlic.  They can also be wrapped in bacon and grilled; baked in the open shell with parsley, breadcrumbs and garlic, pesto or tomato sauce; added to soups and used with other fish and shellfish in seafood casseroles.


Until the 19th century oysters were an everyday food eaten by the poor.  But because of over-fishing they are now comparatively rare and have become a luxury seafood with a high price.  From the culinary viewpoint, the oyster is the prince among shellfish.  Poets have sung the praises of this ``ornament of the ocean," festivals have been held in its honor.  The long-standing rumor that eating oysters has highly stimulating side effects has certainly added to its reputation.  It is a fact that oysters are extremely nutritious.  Although they are 83% water, the remainder is made up of about 9% protein.

          The culture of oysters can be traced back to classical times; shells have been found in the ancient ruins of Roman times when they were fattened in tanks and cultured to ensure a good supply.  There are more than 100 types of oyster distributed throughout the world's moderate and warm seas. Although they may differ in shape, size and color, all have irregular, scaly shells and a single dorsal muscle. 

          Oyster farming is a lengthy, labor-intensive occupation.  It takes three to four years and 35 different processes to produce a marketable oyster. The European oyster is considered to have the best flavor, with the English native oyster being the most prized.  It has a grayish-brown, irregular shell, reaching up to four inches.In Europe the traditional oyster season falls in the months that contain an ``r"–that is, from September to April.  Of course, this varies in other parts of the world, where different seasonal conditions prevail.

          Oysters can be smoked, frozen or even air-dried, but most are bottled.  In Europe, quite the reverse is true:  a good 80% is eaten fresh.

          If bought in the shell, scrub under cold running water to remove the sand.  To open an oyster, hold firmly in a napkin on a work surface, with the flatter shell uppermost and hinged end towards you.  Insert, the point of an oyster knife into the gap in the hinge linking the shells.  Twist knife blade firmly to snap the shells apart.

          Work knife along inside of upper shell to sever the muscle holding the shells together.  Discard top shell, retaining as much liquid in lower shell as possible.  To free the oyster, work knife under oyster to cut through muscle holding it to lower shell.

          Allow six to 12 oysters per person and serve on a bed or cracked ice, with lemon.  Oysters are also very good wrapped in bacon and broiled; sprinkled with breadcrumbs and parsley and lightly broiled; or stuffed with spinach and cooked.  Smoked oysters are good as part of a starter, a garnish and in salads.


 The cockle is made up of two ridged, oval shells hinged by a ligament at the pointed end.  The shell can be brown, pale yellow or off-white and it reaches a maximum size of 2-1/2 inches across.  Cockles are at their best in winter and are usually sold cooked, with or without their shells.

Cockles are often found on the beach, especially at low tide.  They are a common sight around the beaches of Britain, particularly in Norfolk and the West Country. In all there are more than 200 varieties of cockles found throughout the world, not all of them worth eating.

          In Britain it is usual to steam cockles briefly in a little water until the shells open, then remove shells and dress with vinegar.  They can also be poached, broiled, baked or barbecued.  Whatever the method, it should take no more than five minutes for the shell to open, meaning the cockles are cooked.


 According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, arose from the waters of the Aegean and rode on a scallop shell pulled by six sea horses to the island of Cythara.  Ever since, scallop shells have been associated with beauty and have been well represented in art and architecture.  Nowadays, the scallop shell is best known as the logo of the Shell Oil Co. and as a container for fish dishes.

          Scallops, also called thorny oysters, are burrowing creatures; with a few exceptions, which are firmly fixed like oysters, they are able to swim.  By rapidly opening and closing their valves, scallops move themselves forward in great bounds.

          The flesh of the scallop is tender and slightly sweet.  Relative to the shell size, the scallop has more flesh than the oyster.  The large red or orange roe sac (coral), which is easily removed once the shell is open, is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world.

          In Europe, the best scallops come from the seas around Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and France. They are collected in trawl nets between November and March.  In the United States scallops are second only to oysters in popularity.  In scallops of average size, the muscle is ½ to 1 inch across and weighs about one ounce.  The best selling scallop is the sea scallop, which comes from the East Coast of the United States and Canada, but for the connoisseur the Bay Scallop is superior. 

          Scallops need careful cooking to preserve their delicate taste and texture; overcooking renders them tough and rubbery.  They are best poached or steamed, but can be fried or baked under a cheese sauce–as for the famous Coquille St. Jacques.

          Scallops are also delicious sautéed briefly in garlic butter and sprinkled with herbs; or wrapped in bacon, sprinkled with lime juice and broiled to perfection.

          For thousands of years, shellfish and crustaceans have been an important element of the human diet; it is only in recent years, however, that they have been exploited commercially to any extent.  The demand for nutritious and delicious seafood has risen so steeply, however, that many species are now endangered.

Over-fishing and pollution have led to a continual search for new fishing areas, new types of shellfish and new sources of supply, but this has not solved the problem; it has only made it worse.  One hopeful development is that great efforts are now being made to preserve the number and variety of sea creatures through strict fishing regulations, closed seasons and artificial cultivation of suitable types.

 Restaurant Note

 Below Market Street in the SOMA area of San Francisco look for LULU restaurant at 816 Folsom Street (at Fourth Street), telephone:  (415) 495-5775.  They serve the most delicious roasted mussels you will ever have. With its French/Italian focus, the food, presented on Italian pottery platters, is simply prepared and perfectly executed to please adults and kids alike. Don't miss it.

 Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, ``sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her ``Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.

 More Mollusk Links

 1.     Learn the words to the famous song about cockles and mussels at

2.     Find a delicious recipe for mussels mozzarella at

3.     For a sea scallop in herb broth recipe go to

4.     Want to buy some seashells?  Go to the Shell Shop in Morro Bay:

5.     Menus and seafood restaurants in Long Island are available at

6.     For some information about the West Coast oyster farms click on

7.     To order a Clambake and cook it yourself click on

8.     For some frequently asked questions about fish go to



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