Mistaken identity, or clams with pasta shapes

Time tends to fog the minute details of visits to the great cities of the world. Thus anything that has happened to me in Paris or New York or Rome or Florence turns into one of life’s greatest moments. Which means the tagliatelle alia vongole I took at a tiny trattoria just outside the Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence may not really be among the finest dishes I have eaten, but my memory says it was.

When I ordered, I had no idea what I would be served. That’s trust for you. I suspected something to do with wings, such is the sound association withvongole-, when the fliers turned out to be swimmers, if clams swim, I was reminded of another time in Paris, when my little sweetbread ordered the ris de veau, expecting a rather hefty chunk of veal, assisted by a bowl of rice. Fortunately, the elderly, endearing maitre d’ sussed out that we were a couple of rather strange people from another world.

‘Madame,’ he said, in a low voice, ‘you know this eez, how you say, sweetbreads?’

Well, you can’t be pretty and brave as well. She turns a strange colour whenever you mention the insides of anything. She smiled a wan smile, did an about turn, and went for the poisson du jour!

Since the affair di Firenze, I have had plenty of disappointments with clams, all suffering from the same problems: grit and overcooking. There is not much you can do about the former. It really depends on where they come from. If they have been allowed to disgorge any sand or whatever while still at sea, then you can expect an extraordinary purity of flavour, as delicious as oysters, with an entirely different texture. The best I have come across came from a supplier in Burnie, on Tasmania’s north coast (where else but Tasmania?).

‘Why no grit?’ I said to Alan Flintoff, who deals in all sorts of seafood.

They are purged, he informed me, in waters as pure as the original sea. Two weeks they hang about in
baskets, disgorging themselves of any unpleasantries. They are, I was told, perfect specimens. I had eaten some by then, and was nodding away furiously down the phone in agreement.

‘How did you cook them?’ he asked.

‘Just,’ I said. ‘I split them down the middle and tossed them through a warm sauce. They need to be just cooked.’

I could sense he was pretty pleased with that.

‘So many people say they taste like balls of rubber,’ he said. ‘They always overcook them. I prefer ours raw, or barely cooked.’

Hear, hear. The mistake is tossing the closed, live clams into a steamer, or boiling water, and letting them steam inside until they are forced to open. By then they have become miniature microwave ovens, as the aductor muscles put up such a stink when invaded by heat, everything inside is slaughtered before they give up the ghost. Don’t do it. Slit them apart and barely cook them.

2kg clams is enough for two, although I could probably eat a kilo on my own

1 shallot, or small onion, chopped finely

½ clove garlic, sliced finely

½ cup white wine

2 tomatoes, skinned, chopped finely salt

1 chilli, chopped finely a little cream, perhaps 40ml pasta - I prefer to use shapes for this dish, rather than the traditional tagliatelle - the clams sometimes hide in the pasta, as if in the sea. If you make your own tagliatelle, keep the quantities small and use the pasta as a holder of the sauce, no more. The dried shapes are not as rich, and you can take more of them, without affecting the flavour, the joy of the clams.

the freshest herbs you have, especially chives, tarragon, or chervil from the garden; or coriander

black pepper


Split the clams with a sharp knife over a bowl to collect any juices.


Heat the shallot or small onion, and the garlic, in a little olive oil until the onion softens. Add the white wine, reducing quite heavily over a high heat. Remove from the heat and add the chopped tomatoes, salt and chilli, moving it about with a spoon. When the pan stops sizzling, return to a low flame and cook gently until the tomato thickens a little.


Add the cream and blend with the tomato mix, cooking gently for another minute or so. Test for seasoning and set aside while you cook the pasta.


When the pasta is just about cooked, heat the tomato sauce to just about boiling and toss in the clams, any clam juice and the herbs. Work around off the heat with a spoon, so the sauce touches all the clams. It might help to hold a lid over the pan and invert, re-invert, and so on.


Drain the pasta and toss the hot pasta through the sauce.


Serve simply, in wide pasta bowls, and turn the pepper mill over the top of each bowl. Make sure you have plenty of napkins and finger bowls at the ready.

WINE: A nice, big, peaches-and- cream chardonnay -the Hunter and McLaren Vale make the best of these styles. Try Rosemount Show, Tyrell’s, Krondorf, or Broken Wood.