Native range: Atlantic Europe
Invasive Range: Northeast coast of North America
Habitat: Intertidal. Often found on rocky shores, pilings, and rock jetties.
Description: About one inch long. Spiral shell is typically black, brown, or gray
The common periwinkle, which first appeared in New England in the 1860s, is now found along the coast wherever there’s hard substrate–rocks, riprap, broken concrete, or docks–from Labrador to Maryland. About the diameter of a quarter, the snail can be recognized by the blunt shape of its shell and a white inner lip. When disturbed, it retreats into its shell.
Clinging to rocks and barnacle-laden boulders just above the low-tide line, the snail may look innocent, but this alien’s feasting on local algae and the eggs of other snails can stunt the growth of native limpets. It can even destroy salt marshes with its voracious appetite. Beneath the tides, the indigenous dog whelk, Busycon canaliculatum, eats periwinkles as readily as it consumes natives but in the intertidal zone the snail has few predators–at least on this side of the Atlantic. More than 700 common periwinkles can be found in a square yard along parts of the shore.
Most biologists believe that common periwinkles arrived in ballast rocks from Europe, or were intentionally released by colonists looking for a familiar source of coastal food. But not everyone subscribes to this standard invasion story. Geneticists John Wares and Cliff Cunningham found that local periwinkles have genetic signatures that differ from the European population, indicating that the area along the southern edge of the Northumberland Strait in the Canadian Maritimes may have served as a refuge for periwinkles during the last ice age. In the nineteenth century, the intertidal snails expanded their range to the Gulf of Maine and US shores, the snails probably unintentionally transported to the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia by ships.
Although there was never much demand for periwinkles in the US in the nineteenth century, thousands of tons of them were shipped to London markets, where they were sold in “winkle shops.” They’re still enjoyed in British seaside resorts, with vinegar and a few grains of sand blown in, a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar on standby, and rain on the way.
Though that tradition has never caught on here, you can find these snails in some large cities on the northeast coast. While collecting crabs in Nova Scotia, I met a fisherman gathering periwinkles in the Bay of Fundy. The five-gallon plastic bucket he was carrying had nickel-size holes, to let the small, unmarketable snails slip through. He told me he made a decent living selling periwinkles to markets in New York City. There, in Chinatown, the shells are sold with the peaks chipped off so you can suck the meat out. They’re sold in Italian markets. But my great-grandmother, born in Naples, didn’t bother. On Saturday, she went to Rockaway Beach instead. She gathered periwinkles from the jetties to go with the clams and mussels she found, putting it all in her tomato sauce for Sunday dinner.
From the “Guardian,” Letters, May 31, 2012
Did no one eat winkle sandwiches? Before the second world war, on Sunday afternoons, a barrow was pushed around the streets of east London, laden with celery and a pile of winkles. Our mum would buy a head of celery and a pint of winkles. We children would be given a pin and a pile of winkles each, and proceed to manoeuvre the winkles out of their shells. After some time we would have enough to create a sandwich. It kept us quiet…
Ryde, Isle of Wight
Spaghetti and Periwinkles
This is a simple variation of the Sunday tomato sauce made by my great-grandmother, who would never waste a day at the beach without collecting at least a few mollusks. Although periwinkles were one of her favorites, she also included little necks, razor clams, and mussels in her sauce–essentially any mollusk she could find along the shore. She prepared her meals in a cabán, a screened-in summer kitchen in her yard, surrounded by children and grandchildren. It wouldn’t hurt to have a few assistants of your own to help remove the snails from their shells.
Serves 4 to 6
about 2 cups of periwinkles in shells
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups plum tomatoes from the garden, or a 20 oz. can of imported Italian plum tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound spaghetti
grated Parmesan cheese
Wash the snails in cold water. Add periwinkles to a pot of boiling water, along with a small handful of salt to shrink and toughen the meat. (This eases their removal.) The snails are ready when the operculum falls off.
Remove the periwinkles from their shells with a nutpick or pin. (This can be time consuming, find an assistant if you can.)
Sauté garlic in olive oil. Add parsley and tomatoes, and cook for about 30 minutes.
Boil four quarts of water. Add spaghetti, and remove when soft but still firm to the bite. At the same time that you add the spaghetti, add the periwinkles to the sauce.
Mix the pasta and sauce in a warm bowl. Serve hot, with crusty Italian bread and grated Parmesan cheese.
Bigorneau à la Madison
Dean, French Culinary Institute
Cohost of “Jacques Pépin Celebrates”
In France, periwinkles are known as bigorneau. The fact that they’re not native to Long Island Sound doesn’t prevent Jacques Pépin from serving them at his seaside home in Connecticut. When I rang him up, he told me that he just collected some periwinkles along the shore with his brother. He served the invaders with chilled white wine at his home that weekend.
Serves 4 to 6
3 cups periwinkles
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco
1/4 cup dry white wine
In a large bowl of cold water, wash and rub together approximately three cups of periwinkles, each about one inch in diameter. Lift the periwinkles from the water and put them in a medium saucepan, preferably stainless steel.
Add the olive oil, Tabasco, and wine to the periwinkles and bring to a hard boil. Cover and boil for 2 to 3 minutes, removing the lid and stirring them once or twice while they cook. Transfer to a bowl, let cool to warm, and enjoy.
Straight pins can be used to remove the snails from their shells. (Pépin notes: “At our house, we stick several pins into a wine cork and pull them out as needed at the table.”) The operculum should be removed before sticking a pin into the shell opening and extracting the flavorful meat.
Serve with an apéritif; Jacques Pépin prefers Campari and soda, or white wine.
adapted from Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop
For those who like their mollusks fried, fritters are a delicious, if somewhat labor-intensive, seashore treat. If possible, find an assistant to help remove the snails from their shells.
Serves 2 to 4
2 cups cleaned periwinkles (about 4 1/2 cups in shells)
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Wash the snails in their shells in cold water. Add periwinkles to a pot of boiling water in a saucepan, along with a small handful of salt to shrink and toughen the meat. (This eases their removal.) The snails are ready when the operculum falls off.
Remove the periwinkles from their shells with a nutpick or pin.
Beat the egg and mix with flour, snails, and salt, until flour is evenly dampened. Form the batter into little cakes with wet hands.
Fry cakes in a well-greased frying pan until golden brown on both sides. Serve with crusty bread and a salad of wild seaside plants, preferably invasive.