For generations of Orcadians, March's big equinoctial tides mean the chance to take advantage of "spoot ebbs" – when the northern equivalent of truffles await those smart enough to outmanoeuvre the submerged razor clam that "spooted" jets of water along the exposed stretches of sand.
Razor clams – long, thin shellfish that look like an old cut-throat razor – lie in sandy beds below the tideline, but with the spring tides the sea goes out so far that the spoot beds are uncovered. In days gone by, entire communities would head for the beaches at low tide, armed with long sharp knives to hook out the spoots, and buckets to collect them in. Nowadays, the average Orcadian is more likely to eat seafood from a supermarket. Few would have a clue how to catch a spoot, or know what to do with it if they did.
It's a situation that Sanday ranger Roderick Thorne is trying to address. According to local tide tables, the first half of next week should be good for spoot gathering and he's inviting people to come and give it a go.
"The tradition is still to the fore in the outer islands like Sanday," he says "and when I first tried this idea a couple of years ago I was delighted to see so many people turning up."
He freely admits – after 20 years of living on Sanday – to still being a learner when it comes to the finer points of spooting and is hoping that plenty of experienced locals will keep him right. "When I was out earlier in the month I caught 16 and missed 50. A local guy caught 70 – one after the other, no problem."
Catching spoots is a highly skilled art, involving walking backwards over the sand. As you walk over the submerged razor clam, it reacts by using the big muscle that anchors it in the sand to bury itself deeper. They move fast, and as a spooter moves backwards over the beds, a quick eye will spot a hollow appearing and bring the blade of the knife down and sideways, to hook out the shell. Others watch for the razor clams spooting the water up out of the shell. "Gauging the angle the darned thing's burrowing at is one of my problems," says Thorne, "Once you've got the knife in position and got it trapped then you can take your time bringing it up, but your free hand soon gets numb from scrabbling around in freezing sand to feel the shell, and fingers often suffer by being mistaken for the spoot!"
Seasoned spooters sometimes forgo the knife and "take them by the eye" – a dangerous practice (they're not called razor clams for nothing) that involves plunging your arm into breathing holes in shallow water.
The sub-zero conditions earlier in the month were a bonus, since some spoots found it difficult to burrow in the freezing sand, and at low tide it was a simple case of spotting them and plucking them out.
So is all this effort worth it?
"Oh definitely," says Thorne, "they're delicious. I've scoffed all the spoots I caught, and there are always takers if you've got too many."
Spoot connoisseurs can be found far and wide – not just in Orkney – but vacuum-packing and freezing are out. Few will consider eating a frozen spoot.
"They taste like string if you freeze them," says veteran spooter Billy Jolly. "They've got to be eaten right away, as soon as you get home – just let them pay lip service to the pan, tossed in a dab of butter for mere seconds or you ruin them."
For the true spoot epicure there's top restaurateur Alan Craigie's recipe. He says: "When you get them open you cut out the fruit and dump the gut and digestive tract. Then you simmer the empty shells in a pan to clean them. When they're cool, you put the fruit back in the shells, add a little bit of fresh herb butter and lemon, and put them in a fairly hot oven for just two minutes.
"They're a seasonal treat not to be missed."
Contact Roderick Thorne, tel: 01857 600341 to join him on a spoot hunt, Monday to Wednesday 29-31 March.
#149 This article was first published in The Scotsman Magazine on Saturday, March 20, 2010