When did you last have a winkle?

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A plate of winkles takes time to eat

I’ve just had a taste of my childhood of over 60 years ago. My plate of winkles lived up to the memories.

When I was a kid my parents would take my brothers and I on holiday in summer to Great Yarmouth, in a caravan within sight of the Pleasure Beach amusement park. One of the highlights, along with the candyfloss, fish and chips, dodge’em rides and making sandcastles, was when my dad came back with a big brown paper bag of freshly boiled winkles.

My mother would spill them into a dish, give us each a pin, and we’d happily spend an hour ‘winkling’ the winkle out of the winkle. You discarded the foot, which we called a scab, and tried to get the rest of the body out without breaking. Naturally, being boys, we competed to see who could winkle the best – and most.

You’d find the dropped scabs all over the caravan for the next few days because even the tidiest youngsters (and we weren’t) couldn’t guarantee not to drop them.

We ate them with vinegar and ground pepper and very probably thin slices of bread and butter because we had bread and butter with everything in those days, even with our tinned cling peaches or pineapple.

They were as I remember a very tasty little morsel even if you sometimes got a bit of sand between your teeth but time passes and fashions change. I’ve been to the seaside many times since and never even glimpsed a winkle, once as much a part of a seafood platter as whelks and mussels. On a rock, yes, but not in a bag or a dish for sale. As the BBC website puts it: “They have a limited following despite being delicious.”

The winkles were on Binghams stall on Sheffield’s Moor Market, between the dressed crabs and the whelks, so I had to have a pound. “In weight or money?” said the lady. In weight. They cost £2.26, pin not included. I said I’d not seen wrinkles for years but I can’t have been looking properly because she said the stall has them most of the time.

I took them home, found a pin (my Remembrance Day poppy pin) and set to. I hadn’t lost my touch. The technique came flooding back. Root inside the shell – these were quite small – and stab the winkle just behind the foot and very, very carefully twist the wee beastie out. They didn’t all come out in one piece. The scab, sorry, foot, was flicked off with my middle finger and the winkle eaten. It was lovely! It tasted briny and the texture was firm, firmer than an escargot but not chewy like a whelk. The winkle, or periwinkle, is the marine version of the land snail.

They were good plain but later I tried them with vinegar and pepper. Sadly we don’t have ready ground and I don’t think the cracked variety went quite as well. The winkles, in their black going on grey shells, were quite sweet. You could also see, if you bothered to look, the green contents of their stomachs. Perhaps not!

This is slow food. If you have the patience you could de-shell a whole lot, then dredge them in flour, eggs and breadcrumbs, deep-fry and serve with a dip. That does seem like very hard work.

But like Proust with his madeleines I was eating far more than a speck of seafood. I was chewing over a few memories.

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