Surf clams stuffed with stories
By Doreen Leggett
Alex Hay of Wellfleet Shellfish Company was on screen, shucking meaty surf clams for linguiça-infused stuffies, when an audience member following along at home raised a virtual hand.
Jenn Allard of Mainsail Events and Marketing, who had pulled together the Meet the Fleet Zoom for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, encouraged the question as one camera filmed Hay’s cutting board and the other focused on his face.
“Where do you buy these clams?” the attendee asked, explaining that she had lived on Cape for a long time and had not seen them for sale.
“My favorite question!” he said.
Truth is, he continued, surf clams, similar to other seafood caught around the Cape, usually is destined for a meal off the peninsula. Although minced surf clams can be bought here, live surf clams, like the six-inch beauties Hay was opening, are hard to find.
There isn’t enough demand, Hay said. So he offered some advice: Go to a local fishmonger and ask for live surf clams. If enough people ask, they will show up for sale.
That is one of the purposes of Meet the Fleet, to introduce people across the Cape to seafood harvested a figurative stone’s throw away, as well as to fishermen who help fuel the Cape’s Blue Economy.
For this spring’s event, chef, fisherman, and wholesaler were combined in one, as Hay owns a surf clam boat which had been out the day before to harvest the surf clams on the menu, delivered via his Wellfleet Shellfish Company.
As a boy, Hay visited grandparents in Truro and harvested clams, then sat on the deck with his grandfather and other old timers to shuck them. The Portuguese-rooted stuffy recipe that the 50 or so attendees were about to enjoy was reminiscent of his grandmother’s.
“I still think it’s unique and amazing that we can go out and just dig up a few clams and … go and have them for dinner,” Hay said.
He encouraged those with recreational permits to do so. Very low tides are best, and clams need to be five inches across before harvesting.
The clams at center stage that evening were so fresh they were a bit harder than usual to open (but easier than a quahog). Hay said he doesn’t like to steam them open, and suggested that folks who aren’t fond of wielding the knife freeze them; with slight force they will part.
“All this stuff you can eat 100-percent raw,” he noted.
Hay went from recreational enjoyment of the fisheries to the commercial side and in 1995, co-founding Mac’s Seafood. As the years went on Hay, like his brother Mac a consummate chef, was drawn to the wholesale side of the business. He now owns and operates Wellfleet Shellfish Company, started in 2002 by 13 shellfishermen.
Everything from oysters and clams to scallops and lobsters go through the company’s doors, shipped all over the world.
Surf clams are often destined for Chinatowns in cities across the United States. They are harvested not too far from shore. Hay said his boat, steel-hulled with a hydraulic dredge, can often be found north of Race Point off Provincetown. A captain and one crew bring in anywhere from 50 to 100 bushels a day. The dredge dumps them on a conveyor belt and then they are sorted.
As with most Meet the Fleets, there was science and clam-centric facts blended into the presentation. Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, told the group that the surf clam fishery is the fifth most valuable in the state and brings in $16 million dollars a year.
There are two fisheries, one managed by the state with smaller boats, and then the federal offshore fishery. Sanderson said there are only 43 boats with federal permits and they are so big that they have labs onboard to test quality and safety of the meat far at sea.
Although surf clams are most abundant around Delaware and Maryland, some believe they are moving up the coast to avoid warming waters.
Bigger boats sell to outfits like Campbell’s Soup, but the strip in clam strips is often a surf clam too. Although stuffed quahogs are certainly popular and delicious, a surf clam Spisula solidissima is different altogether from the well-known Mercenaria mercenary hardshell quahog.
“This is one of my favorite animals by far,” Hay said, as he cleared the surf clams of sand but kept the delectable juices. “That juice is gold.”
The Fishermen’s Alliance and others have encouraged aquaculture farmers to grow a smaller version, petite surf clams. They were celebrated at Wellfleet Oysterfest (before COVID) and earned a lot of admirers.
Onions, garlic, linguiça and other ingredients were sizzling as Hay got ready to stuff the big shells.
“The smell is fantastic. I feel like Julia Childs back in the day,” Hay said.
Judy Tarr, a Meet the Fleet regular, had already cooked her stuffies at home so she could enjoy the show.
“Just had mine! What a great recipe,” she said.