Spaghetti alle Vongole
Spaghetti alle Vongole, spaghetti with clams is a delicious Italian pasta dish which I love to cook but I can’t help being reminded of my first trip to Italy, specifically while on a train to Florence, every time I see clams or think of cooking them. As it was a public holiday the train leaving Rome for Florence was overbooked and the aisles so tightly packed with people it was only with considerable contortions and by raising our packs above our heads that we managed to reach our seats. After politely ejecting the people minding our reserved seats we eventually wedged ourselves into position as the train silently glided out of Roma Termini. Some time into our journey we heard a commotion from the other end of the carriage. Two women were rapidly moving down the carriage, one walking backwards fanning the other women’s ghostly face with a newspaper, all the while crying out , “Le vongole, le vongole!” What earlier seemed like a physical impossibility became like the biblical parting of the sea, everyone bending outward like trained synchronized swimmers. Once the crisis passed there was a collective sigh of relief and my first thought was what were vongole and should we avoid them? On reflection a lot of people attribute their ill feeling to the last meal they had. Food poisoning takes several hours to manifest itself, so in all likelihood lunchtime clams were perhaps not the culprit. In any case I didn’t encounter clams in Florence and it wasn’t until a subsequent trip to Syracuse, Sicily that I had my first spaghetti alle vongole. What I tasted that day was the sea on my plate and it was nothing short of sensational. It surpassed all my experiences with spaghetti marinara and I realised these little shellfish really pack a flavour punch that didn’t need any tricking up by a chef or help from other expensive shellfish. Unlike scallops, prawns and Morton Bay bugs there is little meaty substance to clams but you will be surprised by their deliciousness. We are lucky to have wonderful clams, fished sustainably on South Australia’s Eyre peninsula. Buy them loose at the fish market or as 1 kg bags of pre-washed South Australian vongole from fish mongers ($24/kg, hearty meal for two). Despite being pre-washed sand can be hard to remove, so always give the clams a further quick soaking and rinse in running water and then they are ready to toss into a hot frying pan with a lid where they will open, release their juices and cook in less than five minutes. Add a little white wine, herbs, garlic, chili flakes or a good tomato sugo and then toss with drained spaghetti. No need for Parmesan, just a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Eating spaghetti alle vongole involves using your fingers to suck off the clam meat from the shell while twirling the pasta onto a fork with your other hand. An empty bowl on the table can serve as your personal shell midden. I really enjoy eating it this way but those of you who prefer to keep an elegant distance from shellfish might want to remove most the clam meat before adding any sauce and tossing with the pasta. Reserve a few in-shell specimens to place on top of the pasta and maintain the rustic look.