Fisherman's Diary: Consider the Whelk
Who knew I was going to be a fisherman?
And since reaching that decision with no return, I have come to realize that my long-term relationship with fishing has been as wild and turbulent as the ocean itself. I can say with no question in my mind that commercial fishing is all about survival and time.
I originally embarked on this course as a charter captain. I had hopes of taking groups out fishing and diving around the Isles of Shoals. But I soon took on lobstering, which is both iconic and very predictable in the briny deep uncertainty of a career small-scale-resource-extraction-technician (i.e. fisherman). Lobstermen and the Gulf of Maine are like peanut butter and jelly, bacon and eggs, coffee and cigarettes. I can usually expect a spring run, as the lobsters return to the shallower waters, followed by a July shed, when soft-shelled lobsters flood the market. The season ends with a bang, producing finally a massive fall run, back to deeper waters. A good day can fluctuate between a pound a trap to upwards of 5 pounds.
The romance of lobstering is in the trap itself. As the traps fetch up on the rail, my attention always expects something unusual. This is also called bycatch; the unintended species I catch that are not lobsters. People often forget, but the New England ocean floor is not only home to lobsters. Crabs, shellfish, and fish inhabit our waters. They too enter the traps with great frequency.
Most recently I have been collecting Whelks from the traps. Whelks, for all intents and purposes, are large snails, and go by many names. In Maine they are Snot Winks, in Italy called Scungilli, and here in New Hampshire they are relatively unknown save for a few daring consumers.
Whelks have a beautiful shell and command some preparation. Despite the time required, there is nothing like whelk meat. It falls somewhere between calamari and lobster in texture, yet sweeter than both in taste. In the U.K. the Brits eat whelks in cold salads and in Korea (the largest market), they eat whelk as part of Anju, and pair it with salad and noodles. The Italians simply pair Scungilli with oil, garlic, parsley, and, of course, a lovely white wine.
Whether you call them whelks, snot winks, or scungilli, there is no doubt that this seafood is greatly underutilized on the NH Seacoast. Whelks are inexpensive and delicious. I have been selling whelks to Evan Mallett at Black Trumpet, where he puts them atop his seasonal paella. I have sold them to ANJU in Kittery, where they are braised and served as Korean Fusion. Whelks are excellent supporting actors in dishes, while still capable of shining in the spotlight.
I offer some preparation suggestions from my experience, as I often cook and eat what I catch. Whelks must be steamed, then picked from their shells, cooled and cleaned before they are palatable. They can be pounded and made into conch fritters or substitute traditional flavors like lobster, calamari, or shrimp. Whelks are excellent sautéed with garlic, butter, wine and parsley. Whelks are great fried.
Whelks can be your friends.