Periwinkles Still Have a Place in Dublin's Food Culture

“We’d boil the flutes out of them,” says Moore Street fishmonger Margaret Buckley.

But when a customer recently recommended to her that she boil her periwinkles for only six to eight minutes, Buckley took their advice. “They were magnificent,” she says. “They came out like a dream.”

Buckley stocks hundreds of loose Galway periwinkles, piled high in a large container at the stall she has manned with her sister Imelda for 50 years.

Behind their sandy periwinkles, freshly smoked cod lies alongside sea bream, prawns, salmon, whiting, herring and plaice. Nearby, a seagull squawks for scraps.

Periwinkles have long been a part of Irish food culture, says Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, senior lecturer in culinary arts, gastronomy and food studies at the Dublin Institute of Technology

And they’ve long been part of the Buckleys’ lives. “We’d eat winkles by the bagload,” says Margaret, who arrived with her sister to their patch this Friday morning at 8am. “I loved them. Still love them.”

While the gastropods are not as popular as they once were, they’re still available on Moore Street, and, now and then, in Dublin restaurants.

Pick, Cook, Eat

Periwinkles are not usually a restaurant food, says Mac Con Iomaire. “You’d go out with your kid,” he says. “Pick them, cook them, eat them.”

Methods of serving periwinkles have changed over time. Traditionally, though, they are boiled in seawater and then a pin is used to extract the fleshy meat from the shell and eat it.

The Buckleys had a different method for getting the meat out of them, says Margaret Buckley: “We’d dance on them in the street.”

Mac Con Iomaire recently finished filming a TV series, Blasta, for TG4. One episode sees him cook periwinkles with Blasket Island women in Co. Kerry.

In Kilkee, Co. Clare, it is tradition to serve periwinkles on the street, says Mac Con Iomaire. “Hot, cooked periwinkles there and then.”

Periwinkles appear in folk songs and poetry, Mac Con Iomaire writes “Food as ‘Motif’ in the Irish Song Tradition”.

Kerry poet Sigerson Clifford’s poem “The Winkle Woman”, is one example: In the dusk of the evening I will hurry down/ And sell my periwinkles in the cold strange town.”

Margaret (left) and Imelda Buckley with a customer at their stall on Moore Street.

A Hard Sell

“City folk seemed to favour bi-valve molluscs like oysters and mussels, while country folk favoured gastropods like winkles,” Mac Con Iomaire writes in his paper “The History of Seafood in Irish Cuisine and Culture”.

But there are exceptions, of course, and Dublin has historically had periwinkle dealers who would head for the coast, gather gastropods, and sell them in the city centre, he says.

At certain times of the year, chef and restaurateur Niall Sabongi, who owns Klaw and the Seafood Café in Temple Bar, puts “peris” on his menu.

“They are a hard sell,” says Sabongi. “Tourists and foreigners generally order them. But with Irish people, you need to get them to try periwinkles. Whelks are an easier sell than periwinkles.”

Last week, Sabongi cooked periwinkles with cider and leeks, served in a tin can with toothpicks. “They don’t need that much cooking,” he says. “When overcooked they’re rubbery as hell.”

Sabongi says there is “nothing like” cold periwinkles served with fresh mayonnaise.

Winkle Ways

Some customers cook periwinkles in white wine, says Moore Street’s Margaret Buckley, finishing up for the day, Friday afternoon fast approaching.

Other customers cook them in herbs and spices. Or make periwinkle sandwiches with salt and vinegar. “Sure, whatever turns you on,” says Buckley. “Whatever you fancy.”

Boiling periwinkles, “nothing fancy”, does Buckley just fine.

These days, older Dubliners and “the Chinese” buy her periwinkles, which cost €5 a kilo, she says.

“People will say ‘Do you still do winkles?'” says Buckley. “So then they’ll put it on Facebook to tell their friends.”

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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