Saturday, July 09, 2005

Clambake - an Irish beach party


Petra Carter

September in Ireland can be heaven - the month usually offers more sunshine than we may have seen all summer. Warm, mellow days with long balmy evenings – days that simply demand a trip to the beach. The sea is still warm enough for a dip, the sand perfect for one final sandcastle and the sun waiting for one last blast before crisp autumn sets in. This kind of day asks for a celebration, and as we have munched our way through enough sandy sandwiches during the summer, I suggest we try a picnic of a different kind - a clambake.

Nobody really knows where this traditional American East-Coast tradition stems from. Perhaps it was an ancient American-Indian practice, re-invented by the Pilgrim fathers, as a kind-of on the spot outdoor thanksgiving meal. Or maybe it was always only meant to be a brilliant excuse for a party on the beach. Whatever its reasons, steam-cooking has been used by many cultures all over the world - from Polynesia and Africa to South-America. Here in Ireland, this ancient method of cooking food in a sandpit could have had its roots in the old Irish Bronze Age FULACHTA FIADH (literally deer-bath in Irish), where meat wrapped in straw was slowly "poached" in a purpose-dug, water-filled sandpit. The water itself was brought (and kept) up to simmering point by means of hot stones which were heated in a gigantic open-air wood fire. Apparently after the meat had been removed from the water, the strong, healthy young Irish warriors of old would take advantage of the beneficial fats that floated richly on the surface by taking a bath in the left-over soup!

We chose a beach in Inis Mor (one of the all-stone Aran Islands just off the coast of Galway) to try out this fun way of cooking shellfish. A perfect beach alternative to a barbecue, especially as once the pit has been set up, no further work needs to be done, leaving plenty of time for swimming, playing ball and a glass of wine. Of course to prevent tummies rumbling too much during the wait, we had flavoured breads, tortilla crisps, dips and salsas. And, in keeping with the seafood theme, we also lit a small fire surrounded by stones alongside the pit, to grill a few prawns and the last of the summer's fresh sardines.

And if the weather is not perfect, don't despair. Bring some extra jumpers and keep warm by playing ball games... Hey, this is Ireland. Why let a small matter like the weather dampen our fun? Have a look at the pictures - they speak for themselves. If you want to organise your own clambake, here's how to go about it.

Checklist for a successful clambake:
- a spade, for digging the pit
- smooth round stones, for lining the pit
- charcoal, dry wood and matches to start the fire
- seaweed, freshly gathered and rinsed in the sea
- a flat, square piece of chicken wire
- a wet tarpaulin or large board for covering the pit
- a rug or two to sit on, swimsuits and towels
- plates, tumblers, wine glasses
- wine, beer & non-alcoholic drinks (keep them cool in the sea)
- corkscrew and bottle opener
- flask with strong, hot coffee for afters (and a bottle of whiskey to flavour it)
- napkins and a bin liner to take the rubbish home
- though Americans sometimes also add crabs, lobsters, fresh corn, pieces of chicken and even frankfurters to a clambake, I would advice to stick to clams, mussels, prawns, cockles and periwinkles, all scrubbed and rinsed
- a few eats to nibble whilst you're waiting for the seafood to cook: breads or crisps with dips and salsas
- things to eat with the steamed seafood include potatoes (preferably pre-cooked for 10 minutes), garlic bread mayonnaise, salads + dressings, lime and lemon wedges

It's important to start preparations 4 hours before you want to eat - so send a few strong men ahead to set up the pit.
First dig a pit in the sand - about one and a half foot deep and two feet across. Line the pit with smooth round rocks. (Get the kids to gather them the day before). Now build a good fire on top of the stones, using charcoal as well as wood and dried driftwood. This fire must be fed and kept going for at least 2 hours until the stones are really hot. Meanwhile, gather and rinse a large bushel of wet rock seaweed (if the seaweed is dry when you pick it, make sure to soak it for a while in seawater). When the stones are very, very hot and the firewood is just about burnt out, damp down the embers with a thick layer of wet seaweed. (We also added lots of green fennel that grows wild everywhere on the stony Aran islands). Bend the edges of the piece of chicken wire upwards so that the sheet forms a flat tray and place over all the wet, steaming greenery. Now rapidly pack the tray with the seafood and scrubbed potatoes (if you do not have chicken wire, wrap individual servings of seafood in muslin or foil), then put more wet seaweed on top to create lots of steam. Quickly cover with the wet tarpaulin (which should be weighted down with rocks) or put a board over the pit. Everything should steam, tightly covered, for about 2 hours - whilst you and yours enjoy the beach and sea! To test if the food is ready, lift a corner briefly and see if the clams have opened. Not until then, can the feast begin. Have lots of napkins at the ready and serve with plenty of melted butter and homemade herb or garlic flavoured mayonnaise to dip as well as breads and salads.

- You may have to order your bivalves (= another word for shellfish with two shells like mussels, scallops, clams and cockles) ahead of time. Inquire from your local fish supplier.
- When buying bivalves make sure that they're tightly closed (or "clam up") when you tap them sharply. Discard any shells that remain open when you scrub them as well as those that are damaged and cracked. Shells that don't open when cooked should also be thrown out. If you want you can soak the shells overnight in salted water to clean them of grit or sand.


Blogger Marc Millon said...

Petra, this sounds amazing! Thanks for sharing it with us. I hope to have a go at a clambake on Exmouth or Budleigh Salterton beach later in the summer, and your story will be my blueprint for doing so.

Marc x

July 09, 2005 1:55 pm  

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