Pipis, cockles or clams are increasingly available and are mostly gathered along the South Australian coastline. At my fish shop I buy them vacuum-packed with some sea water, just as I do mussels.
These shellfish have a cream to brown wedge-shaped shell and are among the most tender. Their popular name in South Australia is Goolwa cockles, referring to the holiday town on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Goolwa fishermen were a bit surprised when their favourite bait fish became much sought after as a delicacy. Pipis are harvested using long rakes and agile toes. It is a very surprising sight to see a line of cocklers wriggling their feet in the sand as the sea rushes in and out, and then raking the sand for the prize.
If you have gathered the pipis yourself you will need to purge them of sand before you start by soaking them as described below. If your pipis are purchased they will have been purged before arriving at your fishmongers and you can omit the long soaking, but still give them a wash. I refer to advice given by my friend and colleague Emiko Davies in her book Acquacotta (page 140) on how to ensure that you are not including a dead pipi to spoil your dish.
Baby clams with garlic and ham was one of the excellent dishes my daughter and I enjoyed at the justly famous restaurant Cal Pep in Barcelona. Go there for the theatre as well as the outstanding food. There will probably be a queue – it is worth the wait to try and nab one of the stools directly in front of the stove. As well as the baby clams with garlic and ham, we had grilled razor shell clams and a shining emerald-green platter of blistered pimientos de Padrón, small peppers now grown commercially in New South Wales.
Jamon is air-dried cured ham from Spain. It is stronger in flavour and usually cut thicker than Italian prosciutto crudo. If jamon is unavailable prosciutto is an acceptable substitute.
½ teaspoon saffron threads
150 ml manzanilla sherry or dry white wine
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 x 1-cm thick slices sourdough, crusts removed
4 garlic cloves, finely sliced
1 long red chilli, seeded and finely sliced
1 tablespoon thyme leaves or dried oregano
1 x 400 g can butter beans, drained
4 very thin slices jamon, torn into pieces
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Wash the pipis well, discarding any with broken shells. (If you have harvested your own pipis, soak them in a bowl of well-salted water for 1 hour before proceeding. My fishermen friends call this ‘stressing’ the shellfish and they would do this with sea water.)
- Lift out the pipis and drain them in a colander for at least 10 minutes before cooking – don’t be tempted to tip them straight into the colander as any sand will go in as well. Follow Emiko’s advice and after the pipis have drained, tap each one firmly on your workbench. Live ones will stay tightly shut. Dead ones will probably open and may be full of sand that would ruin your dish.
- Preheat the oven to 120°C (100°C fan-forced) with 4 shallow serving bowls in it. Line a plate with paper towel.
- Soak the saffron in the sherry or wine in a small bowl.
- Heat half the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat and fry the bread until golden on both sides. Drain the bread on the paper-lined plate.
- Wipe any crumbs from the pan with paper towel. Break the fried bread into rough pieces.
- Add a little more of the oil to the pan, reduce the heat to low and add the garlic, chilli and
- thyme or oregano. Cover the pan for 30 seconds and fry until the garlic is just faintly coloured.
- Tip the bread back into the pan, then transfer the contents to the small bowl of a food processor. Quickly pulse to a very coarse mixture and set aside on a plate next to the stove.
Select a wide saucepan or sauté pan with a lid that can hold the pipis more or less in a single layer. Tip in the sherry and saffron mixture and add the butter beans and pipis. Put the lid on the pan and cook over high heat for about 3 minutes.
- Give the pan a shake and then lift the lid. Hopefully all the pipis will now be open and the beans will be hot. If any pipis remain unopened, give them another 2–3 minutes – discard any that don’t open after this time.
- Scoop the pipis and beans into the warmed serving bowls and divide the liquid in the pan among the bowls.
- Spoon the bread mixture over the top, then scatter on the jamon and parsley and serve