One afternoon on a recent trip to Anguilla, I was hanging out on a quiet beach with a group of friends enjoying one of my favorite island pastimes: just lounging around enjoying happy conversation, tasty food and some nice cold drinks.
At some point one of our buddies disappeared and we couldn’t figure out where he had gone. After a short search, I spotted him in the distance out on a rocky part of the beach. He was bent over, pulling things out of the water and putting them into a bucket of some sort.
I asked my friends what he was doing, but they didn’t even really look to see. They just shrugged and said he’d tell us when he came back. Since I haven’t even come close to developing the level of patience that my Anguillian friends have (working on it, really I am…) and because I just couldn’t contain my curiosity, I decided that I had to find out right then. So, I walked down to the rocky beach area and asked what he was up to.
It turns out that he was collecting what he called “whelks” (or “wilks” as it is sometimes spelled), which are a type of sea snail, to take home and cook up. (Please read the discussion below about what their real names are so you don’t get them confused with their poisonous namesakes!) He had grand plans of boiling them up into a nice soup and he seemed really excited about the prospect of the delicious meal he was going to make.
I took a look at some of the “whelks” up close:
My friend was picking them off of the rocks. The white arrows in the photo below point to some kind of shelled creatures on the rocks under the water, but now that I’m looking at it closely, I realize that I can’t clearly see the characteristic black and white/light markings as the ones above, so I can’t be 100% positive that these are the same as the “whelks” above. It’s possible the ones in the photo below have something covering their shells and that the ones above were washed off. (If you have any info, please let me know in the comments below!) In any case, the snails that were being collected were situated much like these in the photo below:
And in no time, my friend had filled his jug:
Satisfied with his loot, my friend picked up his container and we walked down the beach to return to our original spot.
When we arrived back at the group and the others saw what was in the container, some kind of jubilant frenzy ensued! Someone grabbed the jug from my friend’s arms and got all excited about a WHOLE entire bucket full of whelks! and “Let’s eat ‘em right now!”. The poor guy who collected the snails had to chase people around as they played keep-away and hide-and-seek with his precious whelks. He tried to convince them that they would absolutely NOT be eaten until he cooked them at home in that soup he was still dreaming of, unfortunately to no avail.
“Come on. We gonna put ‘em on the fire, tssss! tssss! They gonna be nice!” exclaimed one of the other friends. (Where “tssss! tssss!” is the sound of whelks getting grilled, of course.)
The best deal that the snail-collector friend could manage was to tell them to leave some for him to take home. Poor guy. With that, about two-thirds of the jug was immediately emptied and the snails were put on the grill.
I’ll tell you, I’ve never really been a fan of even the thought of eating snails but…well, did I mention that the drinks we were having that day had alcohol in them? (Kinda goes without saying on a beach trip, right?) You may also know, from previous posts, that I am…ahem… somewhat susceptible to the powers of some Anguillian friends’ peer-pressure (but they’d never steer me wrong). So, yes, I tried the “whelks”, and they actually tasted really good! We pulled them out of their shells with toothpicks and the tines of smaller forks. They’re tender and a bit salty, which makes sense having just come out of the sea. Like some other seafood, the overcooked ones do tend to get a little rubbery but they’re still really tasty.
I’m told that these particular “whelks” can also be eaten raw, after being washed off with seawater. I’m sure there are endless other ways to serve them as well, but I haven’t heard about them yet – I hope to, though!
From what I understand, these “whelks” are not as easy to come by as other seafood in Anguillian restaurants and stores, so the common mentality is “If you see them, buy them, because you probably won’t see them again for a while”. Apparently, they do show up as specials in restaurants from time to time, so keep your eyes open!
The next time I got to a computer and was thinking about them, I looked up “whelks” online to find out more information. When the first article I read said that whelks are poisonous, I nearly had a heart attack! After I regained my composure though, I realized that it had been quite a long time since I had eaten them (several months), and that since I had had no ill effects since then, I was probably going to live.
I asked an Anguillian friend of mine about what are known as “whelks” in Anguilla, and he said that the real name for them is the “West Indian Top Shell” (Latin name Cittarium pica). The whelks that are poisonous are from an entirely different family, Buccinidae or “true whelks”, whereas the West Indian Top Shell are in the family Turbinidae. The two are not even closely related and the “West Indian Top Shells” are not considered to be poisonous. Phew!
Unfortunately, because of their popularity, these West Indian Top Shell snails are also suffering from being overfished, and so the populations in the Caribbean are decreasing. As a result, some islands have strict regulations on when they can be collected, i.e. not during their reproductive season between June and November and some islands do not allow collecting them at all. I have asked around and have been told that it is not illegal to collect West Indian Top Shell snails in Anguilla. Since, however, they are endangered, I have chosen not to identify the specific beach where these whelks were found, but I can confirm that they were not collected during the reproductive season.
Now, I do not recommend that a novice should just go out, pick some random mollusks off of some rocks in the sea and try to eat them, especially since there are similar looking ones that could really harm you if you do! (I don’t know for certain if the poisonous varieties exist in the waters of Anguilla but I, personally, wouldn’t take the chance.) If, however, you know someone who can accurately identify the correct species or you come across whelks as a “special” on a restaurant menu in Anguilla, you should definitely try them!