The Mystery of the Gastropod


It’s a beautiful sunny March day and I’m driving past the Bruichladdich Distillery on the Isle of Islay to pick some foraged ingredients for the folowing day’s meal.

I spot forager Mark Williams carefully clambering among the rock pools leading a small master class on coastal foraging. He is intently searching for the small umami bomb that is Pepper Dulse.

Whilst stopping to say hello, Mark points out all the limpets firmly attached to the rocks and asks if I’d ever cooked them before… evidently he had given it a go once but found that they were very tough and rubbery. I on the other hand, had never thought about it and began to wonder why I hadn’t seen them on menus. I immediately took this to be a challenge.

Removing them from the rocks however, is not as easy as you would think… Firstly you have to slowly sneak up on them and then briskly give them a firm knock with the heel of your shoe or a small hand sized rock. The key is not to disturb them; if you do they will go into lock down – attaching themselves very firmly to the rock, clinging on for dear life and with absolutely no chance of removing them without damaging the shells. This makes perfect sense when you find out that  limpets’ teeth are made up of the strongest material known to man!

I initially manage to sneak up on and pick ten complacent limpets to experiment. However, unfortunately for the limpets, I kick in to hunter-gatherer mode, excitedly thinking that if I can just get a few more, perhaps they could end up as a special addition to tomorrow’s dinner?

Back at the farmhouse where our kitchen is based, I kick off my suede, ‘city boy’ shoes and put on my faithful walking boots. Back to the shore it is!

Surprisingly, I manage to get into a good system of sneaking around and knocking the little limpits from their rocks on the shores of Islay and eventually forage enough to feed the twelve we have comeing to eat. My mind is a race on what could be the best techniques to prepare these molluscs to meet their maker. I arrive back quickly at the farmhouse, excited by the prospect of working with a new ingredient.

Patelles á la Islay

I decided that since they are visually very similar to snails, I would use the same techniques to cook them, minus the purging.

I decided that since they are visually very similar to snails, I would use the same techniques to cook them, minus the purging.

I began by blanching them for one minute, I then removed the gritty stomach sack and washed them once more before finally submerging them in a classic French court bouillon (a slightly acidic, aromatic French poaching liquor for shellfish, snails or fish).

After braising them for one and a half hours (the same time as you would for snails), I tentatively take one out to test… it is very tough. Very. So I think maybe they’ll take a bit longer, two and a half hours perhaps… no, still tough, okay probably more like three and half hours… now they are like rubber. This goes on for several desperate hours. By eight and a half hours, with the limpets having turned into little rubber bullets, I am slightly dismayed. I have to accept defeat by, what I now term as ‘Gastropod’! With my only achievement being a very briny ocean flavoured broth and not a very palatable one at that.

This defeat compelled me to find out more about these tough little molluscs. From what I found out they’ve been around for about 350 million years. So I’m sure some human, somewhere (despite only having been on the planet for six to seven million years in meek comparison to the mighty limpet) has come up with a way to make these into a delicious morsel.

If that human is you, perhaps a forager or cook yourself, I would love it if you could enlighten me on the correct culinary path to Gastropod greatness.

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