And should the strongest arm endeavour,
The limpet from its rock to sever,
Tis seen its loved support to clasp,
With such tenacity of grasp,
We wonder that such strength should dwell,
In such a small and simple shell,
On childhood holidays limpets fascinated; that these small, extraordinarily tough things were creatures seemed incredible. Unfortunately no amount of coaxing from small fingers could get them to release themselves into my grasp. During the past few weeks at Cosmeston it became apparent that others were more successful than me. For, alongside the oyster shells (a common find on many medieval archaeological sites), were scores of limpets. I was surprised; the amount of effort expanded to release a limpet seemed to me hardly worth the nutritional value. Of course I am biased, I have Tesco’s, medieval man did not, and limpets represent a readily available food source for the resourceful scavenger.
Limpets appear to have been a popular food source since ancient times, with shells discovered in prehistoric cave dwellings (such as Rockrose Hole) through to medieval and post medieval settlements (i.e. St. Nicholas Churchyard in Barry). So what were our medieval and post medieval Cosmeston residents doing with their limpets? A quick search suggests that soups and pies were recipes commonly recorded in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and it may be that these represent a continuing food tradition. In nearby Cornwall limpet pie appears to have been given special prominence as a dish to be consumed on the feast of St. Constantine (9th March). It is unknown if the Cosmeston residents had similar rituals associated with the dish, but they presumably found them tasty!
Talking about this is making me hungry, so I present a pie and a soup recipe for you. If you try these out please let us know how they taste. If good, we’ll bring 20 hungry diggers and meet you on Sully shore.
Many recipes for limpet pie record it being similar to a cockle pie (without the cockles, obviously). A specifically ‘Welsh’ recipe (the main Welsh aspect appears to be the use of a leek rather than an onion) for limpet pie is recorded by Bobby Freeman in his book First Catch Your Peacock (Y Lolfa, 1996):
Diced Fatty Bacon
One large white leek
Boil the limpets for about half an hour, drain them and take them out of their shells. Wash them well and cut into quarters. Line a deep dish with a layer of pastry, cover with limpets and place the diced bacon and the leek, cut into one inch pieces, over them. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cover with a second layer of pastry. Seal the pie around the edge of the dish and bake in a hot oven for the first half an hour, but reducing the heat for the second half hour. Chopped hardboiled eggs were sometimes included.
In the 1867 book ‘The edible mollusks of Great Britain and Ireland, with recipes for cooking them’ M.S. Lovell provides an embarrassment of limpet miscellanea and cooking methods, including this soup:
Wash them, and free the shells from seaweed, etc.; put them into a saucepan and parboil them. Take them out of the shells, chop up some parsley, and put it, with a tablespoonful of oil, or an ounce of lard or butter, into a saucepan and fry until it becomes brown. Add a pint of water, and, when boiling, throw in the limpets, with a teaspoonful of anchovy sauce, some pepper, and boil again for half an hour; or if preferred stew, them before putting them into the soup.
Today (17th July) on site we were visited by Gerald Beaudette, a former archaeologist who has excavated on many sites in the area and beyond (including Sully Castle, Winchester and Wharram Percy). Gerald was telling us that, when excavating sites in the Vale, he and his colleagues had also been intrigued by limpets. Undertaking a bit of research they discovered that in SW Ireland they were frequently known as ‘rock beef’. The common way of preparing rock beef was to shred the limpet meat, form them into patties and frying. To me, this sounds a lot more tasty than the soup!
Do you have any alternate recipes? Let us know in the comments!