The Underappreciated Atlantic Surf Clam

Every summer at clam shacks in New England, the classic debate rises: fried clam strips or fried clam bellies? In my opinion, the two should not be compared. These sweet and salty fried treats are not even products from the same clam. The popular option is to use whole bellies, which come from the Eastern shores and are known as steamers, soft-shells, or piss clams. The less popular option, strips, are cut from a larger hard shell clam, the Atlantic surf clam. Both are an amazing sea treat, but I think the surf clam deserves some more attention.

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The Atlantic Surf Clam (Spisula solidissima) is a large, hard shell clam that is found in large numbers along the coast of the Northeast and primarily harvested in New England. They are triangle-shaped measuring on average six inches across at the time of optimal harvest. Their weight at this size is about two pounds making them one of the largest clams we eat. Most of these landings occur in the Nantucket Shoals where annual quotas remain around 3 million pounds. These landings are primarily used for processed products with very little sold as live product to the end consumer. Processed products include clam juice, clam strips, minced clams, and the belly (viscera) used for bait or industrial use.

 
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How surf clams are processed

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The first step in the production process is to remove the meat from the shell by hand. Lines of workers remove the meat by using short, blunt knives and make quick work of the difficult process. The juice released in this process is strained, packed, and frozen for use as a base in sauces and soups. Next, the meat is rinsed of any sand or grit, and a quick burst of heat removes any membranes or connective tissues that are not fit for consumption. The majority of the viscera, or belly, is removed and discarded, or saved for bait. The siphon, the mantle (or strap), the two adductors, and the foot are chopped and sold as minced clams. These pieces are usually about the size of a dime and stored back in their own juice in plastic containers. This product is used as a base for soups and chowders as well as an ingredient in items like stuffed clams and croquettes. The foot, if not used for minced, will be cut lengthwise and sold as the clam strip.

The emergence of the clam strip

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The clam strip is a relatively new way to use the surf clam. It was created for a business in the 1950s: Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. The famous orange and turquoise roadside respite was well known for their ice cream and quick and eat food, but the one thing they had people clamoring for was their fried clam plate. During that time, soft shell clams were increasingly scarce and the demand for fried clams was high. The restaurant’s source for clams was a company by the name of Saffron Brothers, a family business that started in the early 1940s by digging soft shell clams in Ipswich, MA. Not wanting to lose the business, the Saffron Brothers came up with the idea of using a clam that was readily available and less expensive to harvest. The brothers armed boats with hydraulic dredges, pulling up the large clams in droves. They processed them and sent them to the restaurant and were received with open arms. A new product was born and a New England staple emerged: Howard Johnson’s Tendersweet Clams. Soon, establishments up and down the Eastern Seaboard were using and frying the strips, hoping to capitalize off the acclaim. Since then, it has remained a staple in New England and enjoyed by many throughout the year.

Uses in fine dining

Photo Courtesy of Chef Brian Young of The Emory

Photo Courtesy of Chef Brian Young of The Emory

Surf clams can also be found on high-end sushi menus, commonly known as Giant Clam (Hokkigai). Often, the foot will be steamed, sliced lengthwise, and served on rice as nigiri. The tip of the foot will turn a bright pink or red, making it a standout among the tuna and salmon. Another way this clam can be used is in a raw preparation by using more than just the foot. By separating the parts of the clam normally used for minced clams, careful slicing can turn them into a high-end dish. The texture and flavor profile are similar to geoduck, yet mild and versatile enough for a large number of applications. Chef Brian Young of The Emory in Boston uses surf clams as a vessel for delicate and high-end ingredients. He thinks that all of the extra work to clean them is well worth it. On the right, you can see a dish that he created for a dinner at the James Beard house this past winter. The surf clam is sliced thinly and served raw with cultured cream, caviar, mizuna, and potato chips dusted with dried Italian truffles. This surf clam dish is certainly a whole other world from a fried clam basket or Striped Bass bait.

Curious about how to use these clams in your kitchen? Here’s a quick video on how to break them down and a recipe for a quick and easy dish inspired by spring.

#eatmoreclams

*As this piece was in production, an ordinance was put in place on April 9th, closing Nantucket Shoals for surf clam harvest until further notice. Since this is the largest area of harvest in the Northeast, it is hard to say exactly how the industry will change, but we are waiting on more updated information. Stay with us as we navigate this closure and find out more on the future of the East’s most underappreciated clam.

Recipe: Raw Surf Clam with Blueberries, Asparagus, and Avocado

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Serves 4

2 live large surf clams, sliced and cleaned (save the shells)
¼ c sliced blueberries
¼ cup sliced asparagus, blanched
Sliced radish
Fried shallots
Large flake sea salt

Dressing
1 small avocado, diced
2 T Honey
1 lemon, juiced
¼ c chopped cilantro
Olive Oil
Salt

To make the dressing, place half of the avocado, honey, lemon juice, parsley and a pinch of salt into a blender and puree until smooth. If the mixture is not blending, add water until it is smooth and the consistency of yogurt. If the mixture is too loose or watery, blend in more avocado. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil until it is mixed completely. Set aside.

Arrange the clam pieces in each shell. Arrange the blueberries, asparagus, and radish on top of the clams. Drizzle with the dressing and finish with dried shallots and salt to taste.

Winter Effects On Oyster Quality

From February to April, we tend to see quality issues on certain varieties of oysters. It’s something that happens each year, so we put together this FAQ to help address your winter concerns.

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What are oysters doing during winter?

When we’re asked to think of animals that hibernate, bears, bats and other small mammals usually come to mind. But did you know, oysters also “hibernate” during the winter? Contrary to children’s books and fairy tales, animals in hibernation are not sleeping. Hibernation is a form of dormancy in which animals conserve energy to survive harsh environmental conditions. Oysters go dormant during winter because water temperatures can stay below freezing for months. Evolution has also taught them that there is no food in the water when everything is iced over.

How do oysters survive their winter dormancy?

To prepare for winter dormancy, oysters feed like crazy during the fall to build up glycogen, their sugar stores — which is why they are so sweet in autumn. When the water temperatures drop to 40° F, it signals the oyster to stop metabolizing and go dormant. The oyster will barely pump during this time and survive on its glycogen to get through the winter. When the waters warm up and food is back in the water, the oysters will become active again and start feeding. They will pump, filter, and eat from spring to fall until water temperatures drop again, triggering another cycle of dormancy.

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What is winter kill?

Inevitably, there are oysters that will die during winter dormancy. This phenomenon is called winter kill. Oysters run out of glycogen to stay alive or they are too weak to withstand the harsh conditions. The worst part is, some of these oysters die remaining shut. This makes them difficult to detect even when harvesters go through them by hand.

What are some signs of winter kill?

Because some oysters die shut, they cannot be detected until they are shaken up or shucked open to reveal dry, shriveled, smelly meats. Dormant oysters are weaker and have difficulty healing themselves, so any chipping during harvest, culling, packing, or transit can lead to liquor loss.

Once we hit late February and into March, we are basically asking the oysters to do the most impossible journey possible. Out of the water, through the packing house and shipped across the [Canadian] border by refrigerated truck. If at any point in that journey, the oyster [attempts] to feed or gets jostled in a harsh manner that loosens the abductor muscle, the oyster will spill some of its precious liquor and there’s no opportunity to replace the liquor… The oyster will not likely open again until spring when he’s either bone dry from survival or is sufficiently convinced that the water temperatures are steady again.
— Jacob Dockendorff, PEI Producer

Why does winter kill affect certain varieties more than others?

If you are a Pangea Shellfish customer, you will notice that certain oyster varieties are unavailable from March to May like wild-harvested Malpeques. These are the months when winter kill is most apparent, and Canadian supply is a great example.

Canadian waters get colder earlier in the year than locations down south. This also means the oysters enter dormancy earlier than its southern brethren. If a Canadian oyster enters dormancy in early November, it may not start feeding again until May when waters warm. It basically needs to survive on its glycogen that whole time! It’s impossible to ask the oysters to be in tip-top shape from March through May when they have not eaten for six to seven months.

You will also see signs of winter kill in New England oysters as we approach March, but it’s not as noticeable because their dormancy period is shorter. New England oysters are likely feeding until the end of November and start feeding again in late March. They have to survive about four months compared to the six months Canadian oysters endure.

Average Water temperatures in Summerside, PEI.  Water temps drop to 40F by early november and do not warm back up until late May. Oysters are dormant that entire period.  Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Summerside, PEI. Water temps drop to 40F by early november and do not warm back up until late May. Oysters are dormant that entire period. Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Barnstable, MA.  New England water temps do not drop to 40F until late November / December, which allows the oysters to feed longer and remain in dormancy for a shorter amount of time compared to Canadian oysters.  Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Barnstable, MA. New England water temps do not drop to 40F until late November / December, which allows the oysters to feed longer and remain in dormancy for a shorter amount of time compared to Canadian oysters. Source: NOAA

Which varieties are less susceptible to winter kill?

Winter kill is less of an issue for southern varieties because of warmer water conditions, but generally, farmed oysters have a better chance of survival than wild oysters. Growers make sure their oysters have the best access to food throughout the year and condition them to have stronger abductor muscles. Farms also have different wintering and culling methods to tackle winter kill and limit its effects on product quality. So, despite Canadian oysters being more susceptible, many of the cultured Canadian varieties look nice throughout the season.

When will quality improve?

When the oysters finally start pumping and feeding again, it will take a couple of weeks for their quality to improve as they replenish themselves. Timing will vary by area because water temperatures differ by location, but we will see most varieties in better shape by late May.

Is there anything I can do to limit the effects of winter kill?

Yes! Be gentle. The oysters are weak, so any tough handling will result in dry or dead oysters. Give them extra attention and protection, especially in transit.

If you encounter a smelly bag, make sure to go through the bag or box because it could just be one dead oyster responsible for the smell. Discard the dead and rinse the rest. The remaining live oysters are just fine!

If there are any issues, contact your supplier. Dead oysters can go unnoticed until shucked, so giving your supplier feedback can help them assess the situation.

Duxbury Bay, January 2019, Mike Cesarini.

Duxbury Bay, January 2019, Mike Cesarini.

Special thanks to our Canadian producers for contributing to this piece.

Have a winter quality question not listed here? Ask it in the comments section below.

Our 2019 U.S. Shellfish Industry Outlook

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Over the last ten years, we have seen the oyster market explode. We saw the rise of farmed oysters, the rapid openings of raw bars, and the expansion of the cocktail-size oyster market. The shellfish industry continues to surprise us with innovation and newcomers. But as it grows, it is also drawing more attention from the public sphere. As we look forward into 2019, here are the industry issues and trends we are thinking about and how they may affect the shellfish market.

Supply Trends

Climate Change

At the most recent 2019 Northeast Aquaculture Conference & Exposition, climate change was the hot topic. The ramifications of climate change for the shellfish industry are far-reaching. Ocean acidification and warming waters are affecting shellfish health and development. Shellfish are becoming more susceptible to disease and less resistant to invasive species. More frequent and extreme weather systems also increase the risk of losses. Stormwater runoff carrying excess nitrogen is causing more algal blooms harmful to shellfish.

Figure 2.31: Shells Dissolve in Acidified Ocean Water (Nina Bednarsek, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory )

Figure 2.31: Shells Dissolve in Acidified Ocean Water (Nina Bednarsek, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory )

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2019 IMPLICATIONS

Climate change is the new reality, and it will likely continue this year and into the near future. The consequences of climate change will definitely affect supply. Winter storms, wind, and other weather systems will limit farm access and production. There could be more frequent shellfish area closures due to heavy rain or algal blooms. Vibrio bacteria also thrives in warmer waters, which increases the risk of illnesses and related closures.

The warmer temperatures will likely induce shellfish to spawn sooner and potentially longer.  This will affect their quality during the warmer months. The soft shell clam fishery continues to struggle with climate change, and its decline will limit supply. Connecticut, a large producer of hard shell clams, is seeing a decline in wild set seed. This will likely put future pressure on hard shell supply as well.

Regulations affecting catch and harvest

“They have no idea about the impact on the habitat and the fishery… And they’ve made a regulation that’s going to affect people dramatically in a negative way.”

- Former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang

Public agencies and regulators are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, these regulations can hurt the industry. This past December, the New England Fisheries Management Council closed an area in Nantucket Shoals to protect aquatic habitat. The area, however, was also vital to the surf clam industry. The closure may cause surf clam harvest and production to drop by 50%. Surf clam is a New England staple — it’s the main ingredient in New England clam chowder.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

Market prices on wild shellfish will likely increase with supply constraints. Product costs on surf clams have already gone up since the closure. These costs inevitably get passed along the supply chain to the consumer. Local, state, and federal regulations affect the industry's ability to produce and sell. If new rules apply in 2019, they may pose unforeseen supply challenges.

Oyster farmers are more prepared

Despite all the doom and gloom around climate change and regulations, oyster producers are readier than ever. Growers have had to deal with the effects of climate change and red tape for more than a few years now. Oyster hatcheries now breed seed to adapt to ocean acidification. Industry changes have forced growers to find smarter approaches, and they’re now more prepared for the unexpected.

Preparing oysters for winter on the Standish Shore Oyster Farm

Preparing oysters for winter on the Standish Shore Oyster Farm

2019 IMPLICATIONS

If Mother Nature is kind, farmed supply will be relatively steady throughout the year. It's hard to predict unforeseen forces like new regulations or industry shifts. So if all stays the same, weather aside, we expect oysters to be fairly available moving through 2019.

Market Trends

Credit: Sara Norris

Credit: Sara Norris

Interests in something new

The raw bar market is starting to mature. Restaurants and diners are now looking to branch out of local varieties. Demand for Pacific oysters is growing on the East Coast. Interest in Northeast oysters is growing in Gulf regions. The Midwest is seeing a lift in shellfish growth from both coasts.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

Demand for local seafood will remain strong, but this increasing interest for different and new will help farms reach markets outside their local regions. Smaller producers will have more opportunities to find their niche market. More restaurants are also adding oysters to their menus, so businesses will need to stay creative to entice their customers with their shellfish offerings.

Interests from abroad

Despite growing domestic demand, the international appetite for American shellfish is even greater. Asia and Europe are heavy seafood consumers. Domestic producers can command a higher price in these export markets. As of late, politics have definitely affected seafood exports going to China. The West Coast shellfish industry is feeling its effects. On the European front, the FDA is working with the EU to lift an import ban on American oysters.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

The global political climate has been difficult to predict. If trade tariffs stay, shellfish exports, especially to China, will continue to struggle. As a result, Pacific shellfish availability could improve in the domestic market. If the FDA and the EU are able to lift the American oyster ban, this will be great news for producers. Peak shellfish consumption in the EU occurs during the winter when consumption is slow in the US.

More aquaculture, more public visibility

The growth of the shellfish industry has definitely not gone unnoticed. The oyster farm boom has drawn attention in many local communities concerned with their water access and waterfront sight lines. These NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) issues are miring the industry in lengthy and/or costly legal battles. These issues are leading to delays in permitting and sometimes, forcing farms to close up shop.

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More consumers enjoying shellfish also means increased risk of shellfish-related foodborne illnesses. These illnesses receive more media attention, which can become greater public concern. Media outlets sometimes paint the industry as careless despite the industry’s preventative efforts.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

The good news, however, is that many in the public, especially younger generations, have good faith in the industry. They understand that farmed shellfish and aquaculture are sustainable choices. Misinformation remains, but consumers are getting smarter by engaging with producers and suppliers. They are educating themselves and asking questions about their food sources.

This good faith has helped the industry weather difficult situations. There have been times past when the public has come to the industry’s defense. Our industry will continue to invest in public education and marketing with hope to continue this momentum of public support.

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Overall, we expect 2019 to be a pretty steady year. But then again, that can all change in a second based on the whims of Mother Nature. It’s part of our jobs to deal with the unexpected, so we’ll figure it out as an industry. We have seen lots of change over the years, so this year may be no different. Keeps us on our toes. In to 2019 we go.

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Linguine with Uni and Meyer Lemon

The temperatures of the waters in Maine have gotten colder lending way to some of the most delicious shellfish of the season. Urchins are available, but not many know how to clean it or cook it other than sushi preparations. Here is one of my favorite ways to eat those tender little orange chunks of sweet sea butter – with some lemon and some really good pasta! We use cultured butter in this recipe because it has a sweet and sour taste (not unlike yogurt) to give a well balanced juxtaposition to the richness of the uni.

Linguine with Uni and Meyer Lemon

Ingredients

Serves 2 (main course) or 4 (appetizer)

  • Uni from 3 large green urchin (ours came from Maine)

  • ½ lb fresh Linguine (dried is also acceptable if fresh is not available)

  • 1 stick unsalted cultured butter

  • 1 Meyer Lemon, sliced into rounds, seeds removed

  • 1 large shallot, minced

  • 2 T parsley, chopped finely

  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Boil lightly salted water for pasta

  2. In a cast iron skillet, brown 1 t. of butter with a pinch of salt and half of the minced shallots. Once the butter is browned, add in the lemon slices in one layer. Cook the slices on medium high heat until the lemons have browned and caramelized – a little black is just fine. Remove the slices from the pan and allow to cool. Chop finely and set aside.

  3. In a small saucepot, simmer just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan by ¼ inch. Slowly whisk in the butter, one chunk at a time. The mixture should have one color and consistency, making sure that it does not break (if it breaks, the pasta will be greasy and unappealing). Once all of the butter is incorporated, move to a warm surface, like that back of the stove top.

  4. In a skillet, warm ½ of the liquid butter, the rest of the shallots, lemons, salt, pepper, and ¾ of the uni. Mix well, chopping up the uni lobes into smaller chunks. Toss in the pasta to coat well. Add the remaining uni to the remaining liquid butter. Plate the pasta in two bowls, topping with the held liquid butter and garnish with more black pepper and chopped parsley.

A Simple Guide to Sea Urchins

Growing up, I remember sea urchins being ubiquitous in the aquarium touch pools. I didn't think of these spiny, little sea creatures any other way until I was a young adult and had uni for the first time. Since then, sea urchin and food have been synonymous. In the past, I rarely found sea urchin outside a sushi restaurant, but lately, I’m seeing sea urchin more and more in unexpected places. In 2016, Nestle named it one of the top ten food trends due to their unique flavor. Chefs are finding more creative uses for sea urchin as they push the envelope, and it seems this little “sea hedgehog” is an ingredient that's here to stay.

About the Sea Urchin

Sea urchins are echinoderms most closely related to sea cucumbers and sea stars. Their spherical shells, or tests, are made up of plates and movable spines that protect them from predators. There are about 950 species of sea urchins that inhabit a wide range of depth zones in all climates across the world’s oceans. About 18 of them are edible. They primarily feed on algae and kelp, but are also omnivorous scavengers that will feed on animal matter.

Source: Shape of Life. A time-lapse video shows how urchins actively graze on kelp.

Sea Urchin as Food

When it comes to consumption, sea urchins are harvested for their gonads, also known as uni. These bright yellow to orange lobes are “stockpiles” of sugars, amino acids, and salts: a trifecta of sweet, salty, and umami. It’s been dubbed as the foie gras of the sea given its buttery texture and delicate ocean flavors. Like oysters, sea urchins also vary in flavor depending on its species and diet. Urchin lovers, for example, prize Hokkaido uni because of its flavor, developed from the urchin's diet of Hokkadio macro algae kombu.

The green, red, and purple species have the highest demand globally because their lobes tend to be larger and visually more appetizing. 99% of sea urchin are wild and harvested by diving or drags.

There are about 950 species of sea urchins… About 18 of them are edible.

99% of sea urchin are wild and harvested by diving or drags.

Source: Food Republic. L to R: Maine, Santa Barbara, and Hokkaido sea urchin.

Source: Food Republic. L to R: Maine, Santa Barbara, and Hokkaido sea urchin.

The Global and Domestic Market for Sea Urchin and Uni

The greatest consumption of sea urchin occurs in Japan, France, and Korea. Japanese consumption, however, wins by a landslide: the country consumes 80-90% of the current global supply. Sea urchin is a traditional staple in Japanese cuisine. Japan was the largest global harvester of sea urchins until the 1980s, but high demand and a decrease in domestic supply forced it to look abroad. From the 1980s to 1994, the US, particularly Maine, was the largest exporter of green sea urchin. Today, it’s Chile, which exports Chilean red urchin and accounts for 50% of global landings. Overall global supply has decreased over the last twenty years due to storms, decreasing kelp beds, invasive species, and over fishing. In 1995, global landings totaled 120,000 tonnes. In 2017, it decreased to 75,000.

In North America, the main sources of sea urchin come from the Canadian Maritime; Maine; and the Pacific coast from British Columbia to California. Green sea urchins are harvested from the Atlantic, while red and purple urchins are harvested from the Pacific. These days, domestic supply stays domestic to meet growing demand and ethnic markets. Domestic supply is also supplemented by imported product, mostly from Chile, during summer months.

How to Prepare Sea Urchin

Sea urchin is usually served raw as sushi, commonly seen in Japanese cuisine, but it has a variety of applications. Mediterranean cuisines have used urchin in sauces, pastas, and on breads for centuries. Modern day chefs are even transforming the ingredient into foams and mousses.

Preparing sea urchin is super easy with super tasty results. Bekah demonstrates how in this quick tutorial.

And as a bonus, here’s a recipe to try from our Pangea test kitchen —
Linguine with Uni and Meyer Lemon

Outlook on Oysters 2017

Outlook on Oysters 2017

This year was a roller coaster of events. We had a mild winter which alleviated some stress from ice outs of years past yet we were more susceptible to algal blooms, recalls and closures from the summer’s drought. We saw more oyster bars popping up all over the country as the Nation’s appetite for bivalves is becoming more insatiable. Here is the start of what may be in store for 2017. 

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