Coquina: Donax: Good Eats
Ounce for ounce there is probably no more delicious seafood than Coquina. The problem is getting an ounce of it, so we usually settle for its fantastic, green broth.
Coquina (ko-KEE-nah) is a Donax (DOE-aks) a small, edible marine bivalve found through out the world. In the Americas, Indians collected them off the beaches, most notably along the Atlantic southeast and California coast, but they are also found from Long Island to Washington State to France, Australia et cetera. If you have a natural sandy beach with surf, you can have Donax.
The clam is rarely longer than half of an inch. It has two siphons that look like snorkels. One takes in oxygen and food, the other off loads waste. They live in colonies just below the surface of the sand in the area of the beach called the littoral zone, the area that’s usually exposed to the sun twice a day. Donax burrow into the sand at the edge of the surf so each incoming or outgoing waves can bring food. You’ll find them with mole crabs, which are also edible. (See a separate article on them. I have a video on both.)
In Florida the species is Donax variabili, locally called Coquina, whose shells make a soft rock for building. On the American Pacific coast it is Donax gouldii, locally known as Bean Clam or Wedge Clam. The Donax trunculus is found in France and is called Tellin, or Telline. The Australian Donax had a name change. It was Donax deltoides but is now called Plebidonax deltoides, known locally by many names: Pipi, Goolwa Cockle, Coorong cockle, Ugari and Eugarie. No matter what you call it, it still tastes great.
The only warning is they are subject to red tide like other mollusks, so don’t collect them if there has been a red tide until authorities say its safe. The next question is, how do you collect them, since they are tiny, usually about the size of your little fingernail. I’ve tried many ways and an old colander, a small shovel, and a bucket work the best.
Tidal changes are not great in Florida, so it has wide beaches that tend to be flat. That is where one finds Coquina, not where the waves crash ashore, but where they wash gently between high and low tide. In fact, each Coquina’s has what
looks to be a little bit of seaweed attached to one end and that pops up when a little water is over them and stays for a few seconds after the wave retreats. That is how one finds a bed of them. The smooth sand will be clear, a small wave comes in and recedes and you will see a multitude of tiny tuffs dotting the sand that then disappear into the sand. A shovel full of that sand usually produces hundreds of Coquina. Dump the sand into your colander, rinse the sand away, and dump the Coquina into your bucket, which has sea water in it. Of course, two people with two colanders works the best, one filling and one rinsing. You can easily collect gallons of them. The only odd part is they live in colonies, so you will go from patches of beach with them to patches without.
As for cooking….Rinse them very well; place in a pot with enough cold fresh water to almost cover the shells. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer a few minutes, 10 to 15 will do. Drain off the broth and serve. Cream and or butter enhances the flavor and it’s also great chilled. I think it is also the basis for a great potato puree. As for the tiny bits of meat…. they are edible, but it’s hard to separate from the little shells and often gritty. But I have eaten a lot of that, too. In Australia they apparently separate the meat commercially. I’d like to find an easy at home way of doing that.
Lastly, there is some humor in the naming of the Donax. It is among the smallest of edible shellfish, but Donax usually means a giant reed. There are two possible explanations. One is the donax was a large split reed (in two) and the little Coquina has two siphons. A more poetic view is “donax” means “a thing of beauty” and indeed the little shells are pretty. The species name, variabili means changeable, referring to coloration.