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We talk a lot about oysters at Pangea Shellfish because we're an oyster wholesaler (duh), but we also sell a ton of clams, especially manila clams from Washington state!
Manila clams (Venerupis philippinarum) are hard shell clams that resemble littlenecks, but should never be mistaken as the same thing. They were accidentally introduced to Washington in oyster seed shipments from Japan and have thrived in Pacific Northwest waters since. Since their siphons are short, they live fairly high in the intertidal zone burying only up to 4" deep into the mud or gravel. Being so close to the surface allows easy access to food in the water, but also makes them easy targets for hand picking and raking.
Getting product from the West Coast can be logistically tricky. Our West Coast vendors harvest the shellfish, pack the shellfish so they stay fresh for the next 24 hours, drop it off at a freight forwarder, and get it on a plane direct to Boston. We then pick it up at the airport and make sure all the shellfish are strong and alive, and if not, they visit our wet storage system for a drink of water before being packed and shipped to our customers.
Like many other bivalves, manila clams are summer spawners because of the warmer water temperatures. When bivalves spawn, most of their energy gets channeled into reproducing, so it takes a few weeks for them to regain their strength. The meats are unaffected, but the strength of their abductor muscles to stay closed decreases. Unfortunately, harvesters are unable to detect spawning clams, so weak clams can easily end up in a shipment to Boston. They might be alive and okay when they leave Washington, but after flying and moving around for 10+ hours, many of them may decide to call it quits. We try to nurse the live ones back to health in our wet storage before shipping them to our customers, but there's nothing we can do about the dead except mourn them and apologize to our customers about an unfulfilled order.
If they do survive the flight, we recommend that our customers ice the heck out of them. Shelf life of manila clams decreases dramatically in their weakened state, so keeping them cool will help with their survival.
When are manila clams at their best?
Manila Clams will be best around winter time (like many other bivalves). We do sell them year-round, but as mentioned above, they can be weak in the warmer months. Chefs prefer them because of their long shelf life, so during the cooler months, manilas are a solid choice.
So what's a good manila clam substitute for now?
Cockles from New Zealand will be a good sub until manilas are back strong. Chefs are looking for visually stunning and interesting clams to use over New England littlenecks and cockles definitely fit that bill.
Why is there a limited availability of West Coast shellfish right now?
Besides spawning manila clams, we're also seeing limited amounts of West Coast oysters due to precautionary vibrio or biotoxin closures. For an updated closure map like the one you see below, you can visit the Washington State Department of Health site here.
Please check with us on availability of West Coast items because we gotta let Mother Nature do her thing. Besides, spawning shellfish means happy shellfish for generations to come!