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Visiting Some Clam Farmers in South Carolina


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We had an unexpected adventure on our recent trip through the Southeast: we got to go out with some clam farmers. Fat Guy was in the kitchen of a seafood restaurant in Charleston called Hank's, doing some research for his book, and the sous-chef got to talking about a nearby clam farming operation. Several cell-phone calls later, we were in touch with Tony Blanchard of Blanchard's Seafood (also known as Stella Maris Premium Seafood, named for the local church in Tony's nearby home town -- it means "star of the sea").

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We arrive on the dock and, while we go to look for Tony and his crew, we speculate about which boat we'll be going out on. Will it be Miss Ella? Or perhaps Warrior.

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As it turns out, those are actually shrimp boats. Nothing so grand is required for harvesting clams. We go out in a 21' skiff with an outboard motor. But with this small boat, Tony and three employees are able to maintain 10 million clams under cultivation, in 10'x50' beds containing approximately 25 thousand clams each.

Today we are to go out to a "purging bed" to retrieve one bed worth of clams. The night before, at low tide, they went out and raked the clams from the muddy bed, placed them in nets, and took them out to a clean, sandy-bottomed area near shore so they would purge out all the mud and grime they had accumulated in the bed. Not all clam harvesting operations bother with this purging phase, but Blanchard's is a premium purveyor. They get a few cents more per clam, because they take extra steps to make a better product. In addition to purging, they grow their clams partially submerged (in other words they are exposed at low tide) rather than fully submerged and the South Carolina waters are cooler than those in, for example, Florida. This causes slower growth and therefore thicker shells, which means the clams will survive shipping better (Blanchard's best clams get sold mostly to New York and Boston).

The crew hauls the nets from the water and transfer the clams into plastic baskets.

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Fat Guy admires a clam.

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What we learned from Tony Blanchard is that by looking at a clam's shell you can tell much about a clam. For example, the zig-zag pattern on the clam at the bottom right below is an indication that this clam comes from a genetically modified strain. The zig zags only occur in a very small percentage of natural clams, but the genetically modified ones have it programmed in. The zig-zag will only be visible for a short time -- once the clam dries, it can't be seen. Also, changes in a clam's environment will affect the growth rings. Tony could tell from looking at the top middle clam that it had first been at the hatchery, then planted in a bed, and then probably replanted in another because, when first harvested, it was too small to sell.

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As we're heading back in on the boat, Tony is on the cell-phone with his distributor, the Lowcountry Lobster company. They will have a truck waiting to take the clams away as soon as they are ready.

The clams, once ashore, go to be sorted.

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The clams we commonly hear about -- little neck, top neck, cherrystone, etc. -- are actually all the same species, called Mercenaria mercenaria. The specific names are size gradations. The sorting machine is a great toy. I'll try to give an overview of how it works.

The clams go into a hopper . . .

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. . . after which the machine is activated. Several sets of rollers are stacked one atop another, each with a different sized gap . . .

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. . . the largest clams get kept on the top level of rollers, the next size down fall through and get trapped by the next set of rollers, and so on. The smallest ones -- the "replants" fall all the way through into a trough. They'll be taken back out to the beds and grown for another 6 months or so . . .

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. . . the different sets of rollers feed into different tubes, which sort the clams into different buckets . . .

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. . . Tony's guys use calipers periodically to confirm the accuracy of the sorter.

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As promised, while the sorting and grading process is occurring, the driver from Lowcountry Lobster arrives. Local restaurants will get these clams same-day and a delivery will go up to New York by truck for arrival tomorrow or the next day. These clams will last for several weeks but are best if consumed sooner. The guys bag up the clams for the Lowcountry Lobster driver and off he goes.

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Blanchard's is the kind of operation I like to see. The four guys we spent the morning with were highly educated about seafood. They participate in several sustainable local aquaculture programs. And they clearly love their work. Here's the Blanchard's crew, from left to right: Tom Metherell, John Benton, Chaz Green, and Tony Blanchard.

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Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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Ellen, Great report - truly educational. did you try any of the clams on the half-shell? Are they available direct?

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Ellen, Great report - truly educational. did you try any of the clams on the half-shell? Are they available direct?

If I may take that question, I had quite a few of them later that day, at Hank's restaurant. They were meaty, fresh, and free of grit. Unlike farmed salmon, clams farmed using these "mariculture" methods taste completely wild -- at least to me they do. The conditions under which they grow are quite "natural" and the environment around Charleston -- the Folly and Kiawah waterways -- offers high salinity and nutrient content with temperatures that seem to strike a good balance between productivity and flavor. These clams were much better than similar ones I've had from Florida, for example.

I don't think Blanchard's is currently set up for direct shipping to consumers, but it's something we discussed on the boat. They've been researching the ways in which other local businesses use FedEx to ship fresh foods. Shoot them an e-mail; maybe they'll be willing to do a small shipment. Here's the Web site, which contains contact info. Tell them we sent you: http://www.stellamarisclams.com

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I do believe I will give it a shot. Looks like they will have nice fresh fish as well. A little grouper sounds good. Thanks.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Ellen,

Thank you for sharing your clam education with us, and so beautifully capturing the moment. I particularly loved the photo of the clam "farmers." Someone should cast those guys for the next Cohn Brothers' film!

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I particularly loved the photo of the clam "farmers." Someone should cast those guys for the next Cohn Brothers' film!

Ellen, on a serious note, thank you once again for taking the time to create the wonderful photo lesson. On a not so serious note, ..any of you single gals on e-gullet should be hightailing it down to South Carolina, catch you some clam....farmers! :laugh: Yikes, what a quartet of hunks! And smart, too!

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Kim, when I saw that crew I was like, what did they send a bunch of actors to play clam farmers today?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Kim, when I saw that crew I was like, what did they send a bunch of actors to play clam farmers today?

EXACTLY! Like they chiseled each jaw and measured the lateral muscles on a group from central casting! Honestly, I'm the happiest married woman I know..and I looked at their photo more than once today! :laugh: OK, back to clams , folks!

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I particularly loved the photo of the clam "farmers."  Someone should cast those guys for the next Cohn Brothers' film!

Ellen, on a serious note, thank you once again for taking the time to create the wonderful photo lesson. On a not so serious note, ..any of you single gals on e-gullet should be hightailing it down to South Carolina, catch you some clam....farmers! :laugh: Yikes, what a quartet of hunks! And smart, too!

Mostly I climbed around on the boat taking pictures and trying not to fall in -- but no, it did not escape me that my future reality show "win a date with a clam farmer" would likely prove more promising than my photography career! And the banter and wit--you wouldn't believe it--keep an eye on the guy with the beard, he's the one to watch. :hmmm:

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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Very cool series of picks. I've always wanted to ride along on a boat gathering lobster traps. Perhaps there is the makings of a book of photo essays on the reaping of America's harvest Ellen, or did you already sense that?

Just one question. Did these manly men get an eyeful of Fat Guy in his fish pants?

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Very cool series of picks. I've always wanted to ride along on a boat gathering lobster traps. Perhaps there is the makings of a book of photo essays on the reaping of America's harvest Ellen, or did you already sense that?

Just one question. Did these manly men get an eyeful of Fat Guy in his fish pants?

I would love nothing more than to photograph a book of this nature--any leads on a publisher?

As for Fat Guy -- well, he was the hit of the party -- or perhaps I should say, the king of the sea!

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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