You can identify winkles by their colour – they’re dark grey (black when wet) with a white edged opening, and their shape and size – small and rounded. You might confuse them with whelks and dog whelks which are more pointed and much lighter in colour. Both whelks are edible and won’t do you any harm but the texture is very mushy and flavour not as good.
If you head to the seashore with your bucket at low tide, you’ll find them aplenty. I’d advise collecting from rocks, those from sandy areas will just give you more work later to get rid of the sand. Because winkles detach easily from rocks, unlike the hardy, clinging limpets, they like to collect together and hide in damp clefts and under the edges of rocks. Traditionally they are not collected during a month with no R in it. These hotter summer months of May, June, July and August is when they are likely to be reproducing and the cooler months will give winkles with the best and freshest flavour.
This is a typical winkle hiding place!
Step 1: Purge your winkles
Purge your winkles by putting them all into a bucket of seawater. Make sure all the winkles are covered in water, you can do this by using a pan lid that’s small enough to fit into the bucket and pushing it down. If you don’t push this lid down the winkles will make a bid for freedom and those up out the water will end up being sandy and gritty. Leave them soaking for 3 or 4 hours but never for longer that 12 hours.
If you don’t have access to fresh seawater, you can make your own by dissolving 35 grams of salt in 1 litre of water.
Step 2: Steam your winkles
Steam your winkles by putting a small amount of fresh water in a big pan and bring to the boil. You might like to add a splash of white wine, brandy or calvados.
Once the liquid is boiling add the winkles into the pan. The winkles are small and will pack quite tightly together so it is best to do this in smallish batches. This will ensure they steam evenly. Steam for 4 minutes, then drain in a colander.
Step 3: Deshell your winkles
Remove the winkles from their shells. You can do this with a specialist winkle pin although a fine skewer or an unfolded paper clip will work just as well.
Take a winkle in one hand and your pin in the other. At the entrance to the shell you’ll see a small, brown, hard flake of shell. This acts as a little door and is attached to the winkle’s muscle, it can’t be eaten. If the ‘door’ is a little open, insert your pin, catch the winkle and pull gently. The coiled body will come out and the door is discarded. If the door is still closed just gently prise it open with your pin.
This is fun for all the family and not as arduous a task as it sounds, I did 100 winkles in about 10 minutes.
Once all the winkles are de-shelled, put them to one side. They can be stored in the fridge like this for a day at most.
Serve them warmed through in garlic butter or make my favourite, Potted Winkles.