I don’t know why it took me this long to get to Prince Edward Island or “PEI” but I love it there. It’s not the rolling hills, sand dunes, quiet beaches, excellent photography, great food or super friendly people that I instantly loved … it’s the fact that it reminds me of Trinidad in the late 80’s and 90’s … not the crime infested, over priced, impolite Trinidad of today.
PEI is Canada’s smallest province – and before the Confederation Bridge was built a couple years ago, it was similar to Newfoundland in that it was separate and really took some effort to get there, unless you were flying in. I only knew of PEI because of its famous potatoes … all grown in the famously red, iron-rich soil that colors many of the beaches and cliffs. As an island, there are many little inlets, coves, beaches and salt marshes, all providing a great habitat for oysters, lobsters, clams, and mussels. In Toronto, I love going for oysters and the Malpeques from PEI are always expensive, because they’ve long been recognized as one of the world’s finest oysters. I’m not an oyster expert, but I’ve had lots of them, and the Malpeques are ridiculously good.
Combining this love of great seafood and an awesome cultural experience, we decided to sign up for “Digging for Dinner” organized by “Experience PEI” … here’s a list of activities that they currently do. Normally, I don’t like working for my food … but the idea of going out into the sea and digging for clams actually sounded like a great activity, coupled with the fact that we would get to cook up what we ate, definitely got me going. Also … who doesn’t love learning a new skill, especially for an activity that inevitably makes the resulting food far more delicious and that could feed you in a pinch.
Our guide, Ron Perry is a retired Principal, who has been digging for clams on PEI since his childhood and seemed to know everything about seafood around. Ron passed out pamphlets of information about the dig and about various types of clams found on the island, and we hopped back in our car to follow him to the dig site. Twenty minutes later we parked alongside a long, narrow spit of land jutting into the Northumberland Strait. We were at one of the island’s public clam digging areas, officially approved by the federal government after testing for potential contamination or other health issues. The sand was heavy with clay, red like the soil, and mottled with puddles from low tide, all perfect conditions for finding the clams we were after.
Once we all parked and ready, it was time to head in and start the digging with our shovels and forks. It’s actually a lot tougher than it looks and the scene after all the digging resembles a mini excavation site – but we were in search of those little pockets that were the tell tale signs of soft shelled clams.
Those soft-shelled clams are called such because of their thin and brittle shells, easily-broken by our shovels. Otherwise known as “longnecks” or “piss clams,” soft-shell clams are common on the tidal mudflats along the Western Atlantic, from Newfoundland south to Boston. Under the sand, each clam extends a siphon toward the surface, creating breathing holds that are visible from the surface, and when pressure is applied to the surrounding sand (like by a shovel or a boot), these siphons expel sea water (hence the “piss clams” moniker).
The plan was to dig for an hour … but really we got a couple dozen clams in less time than that. There is a size limit to the clams you can take because PEI conservation regulations permit a catch of up to 300 clams per person, limited to clams over two inches in size. It takes two to three years for clams to grow to this size, and undersized specimens can be tossed back onto the sand to dig back in and continue to grow. When we were done, Ron trudged into the shallow sea water to wash off our sand-covered clams, re-covering them with clean seawater in a bucket before leading us back to our cars.
We even managed to find some oysters. This was definitely going to be a great little cook up! Ron promised us a surprise … little did we know how awesome the surprise was going to be!
Since we were digging for our lunch, Ron took us to the Phantom Caboose to have our lunch. Yep … I’m not even kidding, we ended up having our clam cook out and lunch in a restored bright orange authentic 1940s Pacific Canada Railway caboose, owned by a friend of Ron’s.
So we prepped the clams, chopped the carrots, celery, onions, garlic and added a bottle of Keiths IPA… and it was pretty much off to the races with our clam pot and oysters! There was no secret to the boil, Ron let the clams boil for 8-12 minutes, then served us large bowls of clams and a smaller bowl for dipping.
Ron also had some Quahogs for us. If you don’t know what a Quahog is … well D*’s reaction shot here is pretty epic! I happened to like them … but I don’t really get phased by food.
After the oysters and Quahogs, it was back to our clam pot, and the results were just awesome. I did find that eat the clams required some work, as I had to detach each one from the dark sheath of muscle in the shell and then dip it into my butter-less dipping sauce – but it didn’t matter since I still pounded down about 5 dozen or so. The clams themselves were incredibly flavorful – fresh, salty, sweet, and fishy. When you couple this with some fresh spring water, which just happened to be flowing from the river behind the caboose, you really couldn’t ask for a superior food experience.
Here is a video walkthrough
In the end, if you’re looking for an amazing culinary experience and a great story, I would easily recommend Ron and going to dig for your lunch, dinner or anything in between!