The Cockles of My Heart: a modern history
Everyday around the world, people’s lives are shaped by water. We can begin to gain a better understanding of how precious our waters are when we study its smallest inhabitants. The story of a cockle isn’t merely of its biology, but of how it is picked, shelled, cooked, sold, eaten, and remembered.
Stories about bodies of water are cultural lynch pins, part of communities' identities, and are told for the pleasure of listening - we see the myths and legends depicting the lives of fishing communities in Greek mythology to Aesop’s fables, the British classic Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carrol featuring the poem The Walrus and The Carpenter is set by the sea and includes oyster eating. In contemporary storytelling we see this continue; TV chefs such as Rick Stein have made a career out of broadcasting his connection to water; sea shanties written centuries ago by whalers still strike a chord and have gone viral on Tik Tok; the Ama, the sea-women of Japan who make their money dive-fishing along the coasts, is a story that garners interest and has become the subject of multiple documentaries.
We also see how foods from the seas, rivers and lakes tell a story of culture and identity, in Britain you can see this from fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, a British seaside meal that is adored globally; to jellied eels, dividing the opinions of Cockneys in the East End of London; to the small but mighty cockle. So, what does the cockle tell us about our relationship with water?
Cockles can be found up and down seaside towns in England, doused in vinegar and white pepper, served with a plastic spork or toothpick in pint or half-pint sized polystyrene cups. In Wales they are traditionally fried with bacon and served alongside laverbread, for the traditional Welsh breakfast. But cockles aren’t just a British Isle delight; you can find cockles in the street markets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where a street vendor stir fries them in a sweet sauce and serves alongside grilled frogs. In Japan, they are rare delicacies served with sushi for very short times of the year. Last year, cockles went viral online in Singapore after the leader of the Worker’s Party used the phrase ‘it warms the cockles of my heart’ live on TV whilst debating education, in turn capturing the hearts of the country’s younger generation. Cue an onslaught of memes, tshirts, and signature dishes such as cockle bibimbap making its way onto menus around the island.
Historically cockles are cheap and abundant, and farming cockles is a precarious operation, typically having to be picked and de-shelled by hand. Not only are cockles farmed for food, but they are also used as bait for larger fish such as cod, meaning demand is increased. This high demand around the world has sadly led to exploitation, and in the UK in 2004, 23 victims of human trafficking were drowned whilst cockle picking in Morcambe Bay. To this day, there is still one victim who is unaccounted for. The tragedy exposed an underground world of cheap labour in which vulnerable migrants were exploited by criminal gangs and human traffickers.
As publicly documented in the UK, Brexit has threatened the business of cockle trade in Menai Straits, The Wash, Morecambe Bay and Devon where the water no longer meets the standards of the EU. Rob Benson, Director of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said at the time, "this is not a teething issue, this is the government removing all our teeth and leaving us unable to eat.”
Even before the virility of cockles in Singapore, a low supply of cockles due to pollution, smuggling and over-harvesting has caused the price of this historically cheap shellfish to skyrocket on both the island and its neighbouring country of Malaysia. The price of a kilo of cockles has more than quadrupled in just five years. The water has increasingly become contaminated by acid, or chemicals, causing pollution and harming the cockles due to human development on the environment such as farming.
However, new innovations in Malaysia mean this could be a problem of the past. Last month, the Fishing Research Institute in Penang announced that the country will be able to produce 150,000 metric tonnes of cockles by introducing a new farming model that will enable them to produce cockles year round. The research conducted by the FRI found that the conditions in Teluk Lekir, Perak hosted pristine conditions that produced cockles that “ took a shorter time to mature and were of better quality in terms of size and texture”, according to senior research director Dr Zainoddin Jamari. This will allow for the traditions of eating cockles in the region accessible again.
Cockle eating is a global tradition, which also means it now has global sourcing patterns. Cup O cockles is a New York pop up founded by travel and lifestyle journalist Sara Lieberman. Lieberman’s father, Stacey - known by some as the Cockle King - is the third generation owner of Norman’s, a seafood trucking company launched in 1947 by her great grandfather. Today, they source their cockles from New Zealand, which is sustainably raised year-round in the beds of the Papanui Inlet on the country’s South Island.
Along the Thames Estuary in the UK, cockles aren’t just a delicacy to enjoy, they’re also an industry who are ensuring that cockles are sustainably sourced. The Leigh-on-Sea Port Partnership was recently awarded the Marine Stewardship Council’s internationally recognised standard for sustainable fishing. The most famous cockle business in the area is Osborne’s. Established in the 1880’s, Osborne’s remains a family-run business to this day. Its original cafe is unchanged from the outside, they've seen two world wars - even sending one of their fishing boats to Dunkirk - and now a pandemic.
The business and its famous cockles are embedded in the memories of the people that live in the area, including those close to me. Fifty years ago, as a young carpenter’s apprentice, (my father) took a job at the Lobster Smack pub on nearby Canvey Island to earn a bit of extra cash. Opposite the pub, ol’ Lil Osborne - as he lovingly refers to her - sold cockles from a makeshift shed. My father has fond memories of trading a pint of cockles for a pint of Mackie’s Sweet Stout with ol’ Lil. Fast forward 35 years, and my best friend got a Saturday job working in Osborne’s Leigh-on-Sea cafe. It became a place we’d often go to hang out, and she’d eventually move to the neighbourhood , marrying a man who just happened to live a stone's throw from the site.
The cockle is an ingredient for hyper regional dishes, a speciality in many seaside communities, and yet has a global impact, as foraging and farming systems and practices have changed and enjoyment for them has grown. Although there have been devastating consequences in the pursuit of the cockle, will the desire for this shellfish further push innovation for sustainable practices so that we can continue to eat our culinary histories and traditions?
Be it in industry, for work or business, or as pleasure, in the way we eat and enjoy food; all around the world communities are built around the sea, with food such as cockles at their heart.
About Chelsea Carter
I grew up by water. Surrounded by it, in fact. I come from a place called Canvey Island, a small island off the coast of south east Essex, located within the Thames Estuary. Growing up, you take a lot for granted about your birth place. It wasn’t until seeing the cockle sheds of Leigh-on-Sea through the eyes of my French partner that it dawned on me; how something as small and insignificant as a cockle can tell us a lot about ourselves, and the impact we have on the water it comes from.