(Boston Globe Photo / Patrica Harris)

How sweet they are when you have dug them yourselves

HARWICH -- Danny Gaspar of Yarmouth had only about a dozen littlenecks in his bucket when he started musing about the clam boil that he was going to make for dinner.

``You put the clams in a pot with potatoes, onions, linguica, chorizo, hot dogs, and breakfast sausages," he said as he paused to check a haul of littleneck clams against a metal shellfish gauge. If they slid through the 1-inch measure, he tossed them back . The rest went into his bucket. ``You can add corn on the cob. Some people add fish fillets or crabs."

Danny and his brother Manny are out on the clam flats every weekend, year round. ``You really work up an appetite," Danny said. ``We're lucky to have such good eating here on the Cape."

We have devoured our fair share of clams on Cape Cod on lazy summer days, but we have always let someone else do the work. Yet even the best clam shack dinner short-circuits the ritual of a clam boil. So on a sunny May day when summer seemed imminent, we elected to take it slow and to gather, prepare, and then finally dine on our first clams of the season.

Located at the elbow of Cape Cod, Harwich ranks among the most visitor-friendly places to muck for clams. (A nonresident family shellfish permit costs only $15 per day -- or $30 for the year.) With ``three harbors and one port" (as the road signs put it) Harwich's most productive flats are pocket-sized areas at river mouths and saltwater ponds, where diggers can harvest both hard-shell (littlenecks, cherrystones, and quahogs) and soft-shell (``steamer") clams.

Moreover, the town's Department of Natural Resources runs an aggressive propagation program, replenishing the flats with about 2 million baby clams a year raised in its Shellfish Lab at Wychmere Harbor. (It takes them another two years to reach minimal harvest size.)

Small trawlers and lobster boats were bobbing at their moorings when we arrived at Wychmere, where the town pier serves the Harwich commercial fishing fleet. The Shellfish Lab sits just above the tide line, and the main clam flats stretch out behind it. We got there a half-hour before dead low tide. We had begun checking the shallows with a basket rake, hauling up a few undersized littlenecks and a lot of gooey mud, when Gaspar arrived, slogging down the beach in his rubber waders.

``Dead low tide is the best because you can go out farther," he said, wading into knee-deep water. ``You can feel 'em with your feet." He reached out with his rake and drew back, scraping the bottom. ``You'll hear a different sound when your rake hits a shell. If it sounds like a chalkboard, you're hitting quahogs."

We followed his lead, raking back and forth in straight lines, keeping a tacit three-rake-handle distance. The water cooled our legs while the sun warmed our backs. Reach, pull, turn, lift -- we soon fell into the easy rhythm of recreational clamming. Three out of every four hard-shell clams slid through the gauge, and back they went. When we hit on soft-shell clam beds, we passed the word to Danny. For our meal, we wanted littlenecks, which ``clam up" when they're touched and don't need to be swished clear of sand when steamed.

By dead low tide, Manny and his family had arrived and were working the flats with toilet plungers to coax out soft shell clams from their burrows. (It's an odd technique, but it works, and diggers are less likely to puncture the fragile shells.)

A half dozen of us were working over the shallows when Natural Resources officer Heinz Proft, Harwich's assistant harbormaster and manager of the shellfish nursery, arrived to see how we were doing. He checked every permit and casually hinted at possible hot spots by alluding to the recent shellfish survey undertaken by a property owner . Despite the town's work to keep shellfishing viable, he said fewer people are doing it.

``The number of recreational permits is down," Proft said. ``It's not so much a matter of grandfather taking grandson. Digging clams is work -- not like playing Nintendo."

But handling a clam rake is far more satisfying than manipulating a joystick. ``My wife does it for therapy," said Jim Coyle , who often volunteers to check permits . On this spectacular Saturday, though, he was on the flats to dig. He made quick work of it, maneuvering through sticky mud that yielded a bucket of steamer clams. ``People share recipes," he said, as he advised us to keep the clams in saltwater until we cooked them, ``or they talk about the Red Sox."

In an hour we had collected enough littlenecks to make a fine dinner for two. Adding seawater and rockweed to our bucket, we drove east on Route 28 to a market just across the Chatham line to forage for potatoes, onions, and some hot and sweet Italian sausages. It was too early for fresh corn.

Since a traditional clambake is a big undertaking (gathering rocks, digging a pit, getting a permit for an open fire), we opted for a clam boil instead. We continued east a few miles to Chatham's Harding Beach , where gas and charcoal grills are allowed, and the dune-rippled strand is bracketed by Stage Harbor Light in one direction and a western exposure to the sun in the other.

A red fox peeked out of the tall grass on a low dune as we lighted our hardwood charcoal with a chimney starter and began to layer an enameled steel steamer pot. With about an inch of seawater in the bottom, we put in a cushion of rockweed, the potatoes and onions, more rockweed, the sausages, and then more rockweed. The pot began to steam in about five minutes, and after another 10 minutes, we removed the sausages to the edges of the grill and added the clams to the pot. Ten minutes later, the littlenecks were wide open, the sausages were browned, and dinner was ready .

We had worked up an appetite and our hard-won clams tasted just like the sea.

Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, the authors of ``Cape Cod" in the Compass American Guides series, at  

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