Clams are a big deal here, and they are about to get even bigger.
By "here" I mean Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor, and the only place in the United States that has three national estuaries on its borders. This is "ground zero" for raising beautiful and tasty hard-shell clams.
Our warm temperatures and water quality are ideally suited to grow some of the world's most delicious and sought-after bivalves. Clams grow faster in warmer water, giving the farmers in our area an advantage over clam farmers further north.
The most popular white tablecloth clam in the U.S. is the northern hard clam "Mercenaria mercenaria." We know them as little necks, middle necks, top necks and quahogs. This is the species that is currently being grown with great success in this area by local clam farmers such as Aaron Welch Sr. and Aaron Welch Jr.
Welch Sr. is a Ph.D. who spent his career working for DuPont. His son has a law degree and is just finishing his Ph.D. in marine sciences. Their company is called Two Docks Shellfish, and the Welches are producing a superior local fresh sustainable product that they are selling to some of the best res
taurants in our area.
The clam seed, called spat that the Welches and the great majority of the clam farmers in the Southeast use, is grown by the smartest guy I know -- and he's local, too. Curt Hemmel's Bay Shellfish Company is in Terra Ceia. Curt has been a leader in bivalve systems design, biological advancements and diverse species development.
I am excited about working together with him on the first commercial production of our native sunray Venus clams. I think they are even better than the hard clam. They open after being frozen, which can be a difficulty with the hard clams, making them ideal for export.
One of the best places in the world to grow the sunray clams is in our local waters. This has the potential to be a big economic development project for our area while promoting our working waterfront heritage seafood industry.
We import more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in this country today, and 50 percent of that is from aquaculture. If we are going to continue to enjoy high-quality fresh seafood, it is critical that we put in the effort and resources necessary to promote sustainable aquaculture projects like clams and the Mote Marine Labs wild sturgeon and caviar project. It is imperative that we begin to reverse the tremendous imbalance in the amount of seafood we import. Clams promote the marine environment. One clam filters and cleans up to 10 gallons of sea water a day.
Get hip to local clams, and you will be glad you did.
Our customers love our Clams Casino and our steamed clams with white wine and garlic butter. My favorite is clams and pasta with sausage. It's simple to make. Grill some of your favorite sausage -- we use Bob Woods chipotle sausage from Murfreesboro, Tenn. Rinse your clams well and place a dozen fresh clams in a big skillet with a little olive oil on high heat. Let them get going, and then add a half-cup of dry white wine. I love Lola dry Riesling. Add some chicken stock, fresh chopped herbs and garlic. Take the clams out and reserve them as they open so they don't become tough. Once the clams have all opened, adjust your sauce as needed and mix your pasta, chopped sausage and clams together. The chipotle sausage already has red pepper in it, but if you are using a mild sausage, add a little chili flake.
Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar, BeachHouse and Mar Vista restaurants on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key, can be reached at 941-778-1696.