“As she wheeled her wheelbarrow, through streets wide and narrow
Singing, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o.”
— “Molly Malone,” a traditional Irish folk song
BRIGHTON, England — On a recent flying visit to see my parents I just had to make time to indulge one of my guilty pleasures — a nice bowl of cockles from the sea front shellfish stand.
Cockles, along with their brethren, mussels and whelks and winkles, are a delicacy that is certainly an acquired taste. The mini-mollusks are sold cold, having been boiled. The preferred way of eating is to simply slather the things in malt vinegar, spear them with a toothpick and chew them up.
I always joke that cockles are the perfect meal when one absolutely has to have one’s shellfish with vinegar and grit. Yes, grit, because there will invariably be the odd bit of sand in there somewhere.
By way of warning, always find a table at which to sit because, invariably, the toothpick will poke a hole in the Styrofoam bowl causing vinegar to flow out the bottom. That’s also why one should eat them next to the booth, so one can restock the vinegar.
Sound disgusting? Yeah, it probably is, but they are a staple from my childhood, so I can’t resist. Brighton is a seaside resort and after a long hot day at the beach (this being England, the heat was probably a whopping 75 degrees, which was a full 20 degrees warmer than the English Channel) my parents or grandparents would take us to the stand to get some cockles as a treat. There was nothing better than chomping down on the slightly rubbery, vinegar soaked bivalves.
By the way, one theory of the origin of the expression, “Warms the cockles of my heart,” stems from the heart-shaped shells.
I am pleased to report they are still as yummy as ever. On the day I visited the beach, in mid-May, the sun was out and it was a balmy 68 degrees. I sat and watched the waves roll up on the pebbled beach with the new wind turbines shimmering in the distant haze, and I thought of my grandparents and my parents, and little Andy stuffing his face with vinegar-flavored chewy sea creatures.