Dog Whelks – The Salty, Slimy Sea Snails
Foraging for food: The sustainable carniveous mollusc with an interesting namesake
A little about dog whelks…
Not to be confused with winkles or periwinkles, dog whelks are a carnivorous gastropod mollusc that can often be seen feasting on mussels. The do this by using their siphon to dig through the mussel’s shell, and can be identified by the siphonal canal, a small groove in their shell where their siphon protrudes from when feeding. Being the carnivores that they are, it is always best to eat dog whelks with a bit of caution. Apparently, dog whelks are so-called because fishermen used to place a dead dog under a large rock at low tide, then return on the next low tide to remove the whelks clung to the rock, unable to get to the dog.
On a warm April afternoon, I took the pooch for a walk along the beach with collecting razor clams in mind. I was looking forward to feasting on some juicy razor clams, and had brought a pot of salt ready to tease them out of their sandy lairs.
But, luck was not on my side that day.
Eyes fir+mly fixed on the low-tide shoreline, not a single giveaway keyhole-shaped hole could be found. Not even anything resembling a hole in the sand.
Not wanting to return empty-handed on my foraging trip, I set out to see what else other coastal foods I could forage.
Passing by some rocks I had wanted to visit but hadn’t yet been able to as the tide was never far out enough, I noticed a few snail-like shells clinging to the rocks. I recognised them – they were dog whelks! These sea-snails were something I’d always wanted to try but hadn’t yet got round to eating, let alone foraging and preparing.
Taking out a dog-bag (classy, I know… but possibly apt?), I grabbed a handful of bladderwrack to keep the bag, and the dog whelks wet before taking them home, and bunched it into the bag.
The tide was on the turn, so I didn’t have much time. I scoured the rocks, looking for the biggest, juiciest looking shells and tossed them into the dog-bag. There must have been around 15-20 in there by the end, all awaiting their boiling fate.
It didn’t seem right to just eat them on their own, so I grabbed a few handfuls of gutweed to serve with the dog whelks. I didn’t have a particular recipe in mind – the gutweed just seemed an adequate side dish, somehow.
Upon my arrival home, I placed the dog whelks into a bowl of water to keep them alive while I put a shallow pan of water on to boil.
After that, the gutweed was rinsed under the tap for a few seconds before being left to stand in a separate bowl of water, then rinsed a few more times to get rid of any sand.
With a coastal feast on the cards, I emptied the dog whelks into the boiling water and put the timer on for 5 minutes… although I left them to boil for a bit longer… just in case.
The fishy aroma from the whelks completely saturated the kitchen almost instantly. Not wanting the stench to permeate the cooking area permanently, I quickly rushed over and threw the window wide open, letting some of the smell disappear outside.
Once the whelks had boiled for long enough, I removed them onto my chopping board, emptied the water from the pan and threw in a knob of butter. Once the butter had melted, I chucked in some of the gutweed and stirred it around for a while. Turning the heat down low, I began to prepare the dog whelks…
They were slippery little cretins to remove. I used the small, thin blade of my pocketknife (a tooth-pick would have been easier, but I didn’t have any to hand) to remove the meat from the shells. The first one came out quite easily, and looked like a small, curly chunk of slime.
I’d read that although they’re fine to eat whole right out of the shell like periwinkles, I didn’t fancy munching on the hard layer used to protect them from the exposed part of the shell. With this in mind, I took a sharp knife and removed them from each curl of slime.
Once I’d finished preparing the cooked dog whelks, the fried gutweed had started to resemble something more like a seaweed biscuit. Mission failed.
I was also starting to change my mind about munching on the dog whelks. Not yet being brave enough to eat them whole, but yet still determined to feast on them, I had an idea…
Two slices of bread made their way into the toaster, and while they were warming up, I took my bullet blender out of the cupboard. I grabbed a handful of gutweed and threw it into the blender, along with the dog whelks I’d just been preparing, and whizzed it all up into a thick green paste.
Once the toast was ready, I lathered one slice with butter, and thickly spread the gutweed/dog whelk paste over it all.
Just to make sure I could stomach it, I squeezed a small amount of lemon juice over everything, too.
And, just to be on the safe side, I prepared the other slice of toast with Marmite (my new favourite food-stuff), just in case the taste of the gutweed/dog whelk paste was vile…
Verdict: surprisingly nice, although the taste of the dog whelks was almost certainly overpowered by the gutweed and lemon juice. I’m looking forward to finding a suitable recipe for dog whelks, as they’re pretty sustainable – there must have been thousands of them on those rocks.
Have you collected dog whelks while out foraging for food on the coast? What was your experience? Feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below!