October 9, 2015


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Clam good time

Digging through the sand in P.E.I. is messy, but fun

POINT PRIM, P.E.I -- Gilbert Gillis is showing us the tools we'll use to "hunt" clams.

Hunt? They don't have much of a chance buried in the sand. With the tide out, where are they going to go? More like dig down and pick them out.

So, I ask Gilbert jokingly: "Why don't we use guns?"

He surprises me with his reply. "We do." The guns are actually hollow, plastic tubes with handles that we'll push into the sand, then pull up with a clump of wet sand filled (we hope) with clams. As well as the guns, we'll be using a clam hack fashioned from a corn silage rake.

By now, I'm getting the idea this is work. I'm paying to dig up my dinner.

(Confession time: This is not my idea. This clamming thing isn't on my bucket list, but my wife, Barb, wants a true island adventure. She's the one who contacted Gilbert and his wife, Goldie, operators of Happy Clammers. Gilbert, a former lobster fisher, is now an oyster fisher and clammer host.)

So, with the tide out, we don our big boots and head off in Gilbert's truck to the banks of the Pinette River in search of our dinner.

I love clams, but until now, they have simply passed quickly from a bowl of clam chowder into my mouth. Tiny little things mixed in with diced potatoes, onions, celery and bacon bits. Hardly noticeable, really.

That image is about to change.

These bi-valve molluscs move with the tide, but give themselves away by tiny holes in the sand and bubbling water when they are feeding. Look for the hole, push the gun into the ground, wiggle it a bit, cover the air hole on top, and pull up a clump of muddy sand.

Bingo! One is hidden in the clump of mud and others are exposed in the hole left by the gun.

These clams are big, much bigger than I had expected. And fat.

The first one I see has its trunk-like neck fully extended as it feeds on plankton and expels the excess water. It actually spits out the water and if you happen to be in the wrong position, you can get it in the face. Hence, one of several names for these soft-shelled clams is squirters. I don't think it's smiling as I reach into the hole to pick it out.

"Oh, that's a meaty one," Gilbert says.

"How do you know?" I ask.

He shows me the meat hanging out around the edges of its shell.

We keep digging. This is messy work. Muddy boots, dirty hands, and labour that is moderately strenuous, like turning over soil in a garden. We toss smaller clams back into the hole.

Once we have collected enough clams for dinner -- about 25 that have to be more than 50 mm in length -- we wash them off in a nearby tidal pool and head back home for what I expect will be the best part of the adventure, a meal of steamed clams, clam chowder, biscuits, apple pie and rhubarb muffins.

Back at the house, Goldie, who has been busy making clam chowder, takes over with an explanation of the five varieties of clams found on the island. Gilbert steams the clams we've "hunted."

This variety of clam goes by five different names: soft shell; steamers; longnecks; butter; or squirters.

Once steamed, the water from the clams is placed in bowls. For a shocking moment, I think we're supposed to drink this broth, but it's simply used to remove any excess sand from the clams before eating.

And there is method to getting them out of their shells. Using our thumbs, we push back a rough-skinned outer layer of the neck before removing the clam from the shell. Dip it in the broth. Dip it in a butter and garlic melt. Down the hatch.

It takes a few before I'm keen enough to eat all of it, including the chewy neck section, but they are delicious. Like a mussel, but sweeter.

We follow this with a bowl of Goldie's clam chowder made from a larger clam that lives in sandbars, appropriately named bar or sand clams. She says they have a sweeter flavour and yield more meat.

The Gillis' say most clammers like the eating part over the digging. Kids, naturally, love the digging."It's hard to get them to stop," says Goldie, who provides them with their own pail and shovel.

Since they began offering clam digging five years ago, the business has grown from 45 visitors the first year to 422 last year.

So, filled with clams, chowder, biscuits and pie (no room for the rhubarb muffins until later), the final chapter of our adventure is digging into my pocket to shell out the rest of the money I owe -- 100 clams (pun fully intended).


Don Gibb is a freelance writer in Oakville, Ontario.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 E3

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