WHAT ARE THEY? They are sea snails from the family buccinidae. To some they look gross, to others they are probably an aphrodisiac. I for one love them. The French call them bulots which I think has a rather nice ring to it. I often wonder if we had a slightly more romantic name for things like whelks we would eat more of them. It certainly worked for the pilchard who now flies the European sardine flag.
Let’s get back to the humble whelk. They look like how a lot of people describe them - small rubber-like morsels of mollusc. I think they taste like a mixture of clams and, I kid you not, lobster!
WHAT DO I DO WITH THEM? If you are new to whelks I would highly advise getting them pre-cooked for your first experience. This is quite unlike my normal attitude to these things but the reasons are as follows. Firstly, good luck with finding live whelks, they are illusive little buggers. If you happen to live near a large Asian community, ask the local fishmonger for them. The finding isn’t really the main problem here though. You come home with your bag of whelks feeling rather smug but wondering how you cook them... Well this is where the problem lies.
If you go on the internet, you will find roughly 1,000 different cooking times ranging from 1 to 45 minutes and methods that boggle the mind. Luckily my love of whelks has ironed out these recipe-related problems. When I get these little critters home I pop them in a bucket or the sink and fill it with water. I then add roughly 3.5% of salt (this is the strength of sea water) and let them purge for a couple of hours. This will help to remove the slime and any sand they might have in their crevices. Now pop them in a pan and cover with water of the same salinity as the purge water and cook on a slow simmer for about 10 minutes. Drain and let them cool to a handling temperature.
Now is the fun part. Take a pin or other suitable prodding device and remove all of the whelks from their shells. I can’t make this next part any prettier than it is. There are black slimy parts which are the guts, remove these as they do not taste good. You want to be left with the whiteish ‘foot’ part without the trapdoor disc that is found on all snails. Once you have done this, you are hot to trot. I personally like them with white pepper and malt vinegar but if you are in a very pretentious mood then aioli is bloody good.
WHERE CAN I GET THEM? This was covered slightly in the above section but I’m going to state the obvious and say a fishmonger is a good place to start. If this fails make your way to East London, Essex or the Kent coast and they are bountiful.