purple varnish clam-digging


We went clam-digging this morning with our local Slow Food chapter in Siletz Bay on the north Oregon coast. Poor Retrogrouch (his choice of nickname) was not happy about throwing down cold and wet in the early morning, and I was feeling a rather vile case of nausea because of the car ride and an upset tummy, so we weren’t the friendliest companions, but the Slow Food Willamette Valley Convivium was indeed convivial, and our guide showed us how to get our limit (36 apiece) of the taste-invasion invasive species nuttallia obscurata, or purple varnish clam.

The purple varnish clam was introduced on Oregon beaches from Japan, they say, in the 1990s. It is 2-3 inches in diameter, flat, has a soft, thin shell that peels a bit (hence, varnish) and is brownish-mahogany on the outside and purple on the inside. It’s a pretty little creature, and plentiful, since it is doing its devious business invading the coast. Supposedly, they’re almost as delicious as razor clams.

dscf6860.jpgHere are some things you might not know about clam-digging, try as you google might. The people who write information about such things are usually old, seasoned men, so they leave out crucial information for those of us who have less seasoning and the non-mutant gender.

If you decide to go clamming in Oregon, you’ll need a license, and it will cost you $6.50, but each person in your party needs to show their face to the licensing folks, so don’t think you can you pick up licenses for the whole party. They have licenses (and apparently rental tools) at various locations along the coast, and at [G. I.] Joe’s in Eugene.

Buy a clamming shovel (see pics), which has more flexibility than a clam tube from what I can tell. I think that if you’re digging other kinds of clams, such as the fast-moving razor, this advice might change, but it’s still a good idea to have a long, narrow shovel, especially if you’re only going to get one tool.

dscf6851.jpgThere’s no “assisted clamming,” which is really a stupid rule. It means that two people can’t help each other dig the same hole and put clams in the same bag/bucket. So you need a bag/bucket for each person. It’s OK to share the same digging tool, as long as you dig separate holes on your own.

They sell small mesh drawstring laundry bags at the dollar store, or, at the four-dollar store (i.e., Walmart). The four-dollar version is a real clamming bag, which resembles the laundry bag but has an approx. 8-in. diameter metal circle that keeps the mouth of the bag open, and a clip that you can use to clip the bag to your belt so you don’t lose it in, say, a sneaker wave. I think mesh bags are the way to go, much easier to use than a bucket, especially if you have to bring one for each member of your family.

I am very, very thankful I brought a small cooler with a couple of ice packs thrown in and some extra plastic bags. We put the sandy, full mesh bags of clams in a plastic bag, then in the cooler. No sand anywhere, and we didn’t worry about the clams in the car. And we’re really glad we had an extra garbage bag for our wet, sandy clothes.

dscf6853.jpgOur friendly guide, Bill Lackner, distributed literature that said that “rubber gloves are optional.” Yeah, if you don’t mind breaking a nail or two (which I did). I located one nitrile garden glove, but a leftie, so I was only half-protected. I think, actually, that nitrile garden gloves are perfect for clamming, since you still can feel with the tips of your fingers. It helps when you’re digging down into the hole if you can feel the clams. Digging with your bare hands makes for some mighty cold hands, and the saltwater did a number on my skin. Beware.

If you have waterproof pants or waders, by all means bring them, because you’ll get wet from your knees down (and your elbows down).

I’m purging the clams now in saltwater with a couple of cloves of garlic. (Edited to add:  here’s how they looked and tasted!)

8 thoughts on “purple varnish clam-digging

  1. Barbara Gleason 27 May 2008 / 7:54 pm

    What a great find: your blog! I see you’ve found my friend Julie’s store (Pomegranates). I’m writing to request permission to use one of your photos for what might seem an odd cause! I’m working on a brochure for USF&W on their Alien Aquatic Invaders program, in an effort to stem the tide of invasive species, and the fellow in Portland I’m working with hasn’t been able to supply the images he thought he’d have time to find for me to use. So, I’ve been looking for images of the species he’d like to show and your purple clams are perfect for the brochure. Alas, most likely this panel will be in black and white (maybe color) and I’d like to remove the hands holding them and turn them slightly to fit the format. Might we be granted permission to use them?
    I’d be happy to meet you to show you what I’ve got in mind, and he might decide not to use them after all, anyway…one never knows! I’m also in Eugene, husband was a UO instructor until he retired a few years ago, we’re birders and are fairly active locally in environmental and bird issues, he writes for the RG (about birds, of course!) and I’ve got several art shows around town, too, in colored pencil… we’re sort of foodies, too, though not like you, and are trying to be gluten-free to stem my asthma, which works when I behave!
    The brochure will be produced for the public, mostly to be given out at boat ramps and the like, to help impress fisherman, crabbers and clammers, with the importance of paying attention to what they’re seeing, etc.in case new invaders appear. I’m sure we can credit your blog, and many people will see it, so if you’ve got an interest in allowing us to use the image, let me know! Would love to meet you, as I’m inclined to try some of your recipes… or maybe Dan will; he’s the chef in the family now that he retired!

    Barbara Gleason studio: 345-3974


  2. Eugenia 28 May 2008 / 7:12 am

    Sure, Barbara. Seems like a good cause! I’m away today but will give you a call to discuss details this week.


  3. Heather 5 June 2008 / 12:47 pm

    After removing them from their shell, did you cut any of the blackish stuff off like you do for razor clams? My kids and I dug some up yest., but think I’ve gone about the cleaning and cooking all wrong.


  4. Eugenia 5 June 2008 / 1:49 pm

    Hi Heather. No, we didn’t cut anything off. Ours were quite sandy, even after the long soak, so I’d recommend really being careful about soaking them.


  5. JR 17 February 2009 / 4:31 pm

    The teacher of the class recommends letting the clams soak in salt water for 24 hours to purge the sand, and even then he also recommends adding a couple of crushed garlic cloves to encourage the little beasties to spit out the sand!

    Also be sure to call the ODFW clam line to be sure they are safe to dig… at certain times they may close digging due to high toxin levels, they test frequently. 1-800-448-2474


  6. Fourgotten 5 March 2009 / 6:05 pm

    I usually add some fine corn meal (or masa harina) to at least one bucket of my clam water… it helps push sand out of their guts as they filter it from the water.

    You should soak most hard-shelled clams (i.e., clams with short or no “necks”… pretty much everything except gapers and softshell (mud) clams) for at least 48 hours.

    I’ve never dug varnish clams… what does their show look like?

    I, also, am in Eugene… *grin* but spend a BOATLOAD of time on the clam flats, jetties, rocks, beaches, and rivers…


  7. Doug 14 April 2009 / 1:36 pm

    Hi there! I have just found the Purple Varnish Clam on our beach on Camano Island. To answer one question, there tells are just like other clams to a point, very small hole..no dimple. These clams lay east to west..as to say Flat. Not pointing North to South like Razors do. And cant out run you…at all. Slow pokes of the clam world. LOL
    After a whole night soaking in Garlic, lots of sand as they are a filter feeder. BUT second batch with corn meal and 24 hours, they were very clean.
    Oh, if you have alergies to Crab be careful. The larger ones have been found to have the pea crab inside them and if you steam the whole thing like I do you might miss them. They taist GREAT!


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