Whenever I handle the ingredients I am planning to use for my next meal, I cannot help think that there is a part of us that is still back in the Stone Age. Fact is, as much as I love quality ingredients, there is nothing that compares to the joy of using ingredients that you have grown, caught or prepared from scratch yourself.
I definitely have quite a bit of that old hunter-gatherer ancestor in me. My balcony is hardly a place where you can sit out and enjoy the summer sun: too many herbs and potted plants (quite a few used for cooking) there screening you from those precious rays. Likewise, when I walk into a wood I try as hard as I can to just enjoy the landscape, yet inevitably I find myself looking for mushrooms, berries and wild herbs. At the seaside, I look for molluscs, which, on the shores of Lazio, means telline.
Telline (Donax trunculus), also called arselle in Italian and wedge shells in English, are small triangular clams that live in the sand banks close to the shore. Commercially, these are fished by boats carrying nets that drag through kilometres of the superficial layer of the sand banks, something that, to my eyes, is pretty damaging from the ecological point of view. Yet the real way to collect – and earn – a well deserved dish of telline is fishing them yourself.
The simplest way, in areas like the southern coast of Lazio where telline are abundant, is to just dig your hands into the first few centimetres of the shallow sand banks close to the shore and use your fingers to sieve the clams from the sand. Though not terribly effective, it nonetheless works quite well, especially when doing this with kids, who usually love the idea of digging in the sand. The most common method is instead that of using a net linked to a frame with metal "teeth" at the bottom. This net is then strapped to the back of the person fishing the telline and pulled via the strap and a pole fixed to the frame, like this picture shows. As you can imagine fishing telline is a quite tiresome activity, albeit great for training your leg and back muscles, yet the taste of telline more than makes up for that
Telline can be used for a variety of dishes ranging from simple appetisers to soups down to pasta and risotto. For me the best way to eat them is either simply sauteed or with spaghetti, but strictly without tomatoes. This is the best way to enjoy their taste, a mix of mellow sweet flesh and iodine aroma. Alone it is great, combined with a simple pasta even more delicious. As usual with clams, there are a couple of things to act before cooking. First of all discard any open clams that do not shut when you touch them. Second, given telline's natural habitat, they need to be purged to eliminate any sand they might have ingested: to do this simply cover the telline with a litre of salted cool water (about 10-15 grams of salt will do) and let them rest for 12-24 hours somewhere dark. Ater that time, simply lift them from the water leaving any sand behind.
The recipe below is for spaghetti with telline, yet if you leave the pasta out and stop once the telline are open, you have sautee di telline, a tasty appetiser on its own. Also, I have made the parsley optional in the recipe because there are a few people in my family who don't like this herb, yet traditionally parsley is a must on pasta with any sort of clams or mussles. Clearly, you can use this recipe with any sort of small clams that are typical of the area where you live. The freshest your clams the better, and what's fresher than local?
Spaghetti con le telline
serves four as a pasta course
about 800-1000 g (1 3/4-2 lb) telline (wedge shells), purged as described above,
400-500 g (about 1 lb) spaghetti,
2-3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil,
a garlic clove,
a dry cayenne pepper (or less, if you prefer),
half a glass of white wine (optional),
a tablespoon of chopped parsley (optional),
water and salt for cooking the pasta.
Start heating the pasta water as usual.
When the pasta water is close to the boil, start heating the oil over a medium flame in a pan wide enough to hold all the telline in one layer.
Once the oil is hot but not smoking, add the garlic and cayenne pepper.
As soon as the garlic turns golden brown, turn the heat up to the maximum and add the telline. Shake the pan to distribute the telline as good as possible. Add the wine here, if using.
The telline should all open in the first two three minutes, any that keeps shut should be discarded together with the garlic and cayenne pepper. You should also notice some clam juice at the bottom of the pan, which you'll use to dress the pasta together with the clams themselves. If you properly purged the telline, there should be no sand there, but if there still is some, simply pass trough a fine clean cloth.
The pasta water will probably be boiling by now, so add the spaghetti, pushing them down so they fit into the pot if you don't have a special high spaghetti pot, stir and check from time to time cooking till slightly short of al dente.
You can add the telline to the pasta in their shells, something many do in Italy, yet, in regards to your guests, it is better to remove the clam meat from most of the shells, keeping only a few "as is" to decorate the dishes. The best way to do this is using a pin or your fingers. (I would recommend to get someone else to help you so that you speed up things while the pasta cooks.) Once shelled, return the clams to their juice.
As soon as the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the pan you have use for the telline, together with the telline flesh and juices. toss for a minute over a medium flame to blend flavours.
Divide among four (warm) dishes and garnish with the remaining telline in their shells and, if you like, parsley.