In late spring with the bluebells and apple flowers also come the first cockles, throwing themselves up onto the British and Irish coastlines like so many orphans, desperate to be collected by passing adults.
The homegrown recipe would be cockles in cream with bread and butter, but I prefer Spaghetti Vongole. Possibly the best thing to come out of Italian coastal cookery, it is simple, elegant and salty. You have to time it perfectly so that the pasta is sufficiently coated with a brine of wine, oil, garlic and parsley, and the flesh of the shellfish is just cooked – sweet and with a little bite.
Some people stand at the stove and remove most of the shells before serving but I think this wastes precious time. I serve it immediately and give everyone napkins and finger bowls. The children can just pick the cockle meat out with their teeth and then line the empty shells up on the table to sing “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich-Man, Poor-Man, Beggar-Man, Thief”.
The rather limited set of life choices laid out in this dinner-time song would make any modern parent blanch; but in the Victorian cockney lanes from which most of our good nursery rhymes emerged, I think it was quite a comprehensive list of options.
For poverty-stricken Victorians, the reality of child mortality became a cultural truism that shaped the experience of parenthood and the education of those children who survived. It is from them that we inherited the brilliant “Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses” (a rhyme long associated with plague), “Three Blind Mice”, the coda for “Oranges and Lemons” about heads being chopped off, “Goosy Goosy Gander” (in which the old man who won’t say his prayers is thrown down the stairs), and the favourite of my eldest child (who is very interested in death): “Who Killed Cock Robin?”
“I”, said the Sparrow, “with my bow and arrow. I killed Cock Robin.” “Who saw him die?” “I, said the Fly, with my little eye.” It goes on in this way. Owl digs Robin’s grave with his trowel, Fish catches Robin’s blood with his dish and Beetle sews Robin’s shroud with his needle, until we are told that “all the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing when they heard of the death of poor Cock Robin”.
The Victorian kitchen was touched by this same dark humour concerning death. Soles in Coffins is still popular in English coastal towns. It calls for sole fillets and an array of shellfish, all cooked together with sliced mushrooms in béchamel, heaped onto whole pre-baked potatoes with extra butter and cream, then baked again. It is an extravagant jacket potato, a wry antithesis between the elite and homely, and would be farcical on a Friday. For this reason it was possibly a joke at the expense of Catholics.
The simpler version was Mussels in Murphies – another stab at the Catholics. Roast your jacket potatoes then scoop out the flesh and mix it with butter, salt and pepper. Cook your mussels in a little broth and remove from their shells, then layer the mussel meat and the potato mixture back into the jackets. No plates required – the Murphies didn’t have any.