June 15, 2006

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Got milk?

A summer of beer and fried clams
And way down at the end, there are wines
By Tim Protzman tprotzman@sbcglobal.net

One winter night long ago, Mike and I made a secretive late-night journey on the Metro to one of Washington’s tougher neighborhoods. Mike, who like myself was from New England, had a craving so powerful it could fall under the new medical catch phrase; addiction. We exited the Metro and we could smell our quarry. Up the street, empty except for a few passing cars was Island Jim’s Crab Shack and Tiki Bar. Mike wanted, craved, needed fried whole-belly clams. I opted for the Maryland crab cakes and a Kon Tiki; a horrible tasting cocktail served in a Tom Collins glass that was made from two parts scotch, one part dark rum and one part Cointreau. It tasted like an old horse blanket, but it kicked like a mule. Thankfully, once he had supped, Mike sprang for a cab ride back to our dorm. I smelled like booze and paddock, Mike smelled like grease.

My introduction to fried clams had been those worm-shaped things at Howard Johnson’s. They weren’t bad, but I couldn’t see bundling up and taking the subway across town for them. And I still can’t. But up until that point I hadn’t tried the real thing, the full-blown fried whole-belly clams with homemade tartar sauce, lemon and corn meal batter. Or better still, the Virginia-style batter made from flour and crushed saltines. That would come later. First, I had to graduate, get a job at an insurance company’s conference center and learn to shuck eight dozen clams and oysters in an hour. I loved those salty little bastards! The tough chewy-ness of the pink little clams. The slurpy ocean taste of the oyster sliding down, like a reverse lougie. The salty brine. The teeth scraping on the shell leaving a chalky taste that balances the salt and tastes like seabass and caviar and cod and maybe a little bit of oily bluefish. I ate almost as many as I served.

I’ve always pegged fried clams as a working-class food. Le Bernardin, which some say is the top seafood restaurant in the county, doesn’t even have them on the menu. Usually, they don’t even come on plate; just in some paper box that the waitress has to fold together before she serves it up. Maybe that’s why Mike loved them so much. His family was blue collar. His dad was a plumber. A rich plumber. An uncle was in bail bonds. His grandfather in waste management. His mother sold real estate. And Mike always paid in cash. He didn’t believe in checking accounts. Maybe that’s why I always mentally associate fried whole-belly clams with heavy set men from New York who wear pinkie rings and really expensive socks.

The best thing about fried clams is they make you a little thirsty. It’s the salt. And even though the clams taste best in the winter, remember, we’re in the heart of clam country. (Does Miami have clams? No, they got stone crabs. California has abalone and Tokyo has sushi, but New England has its clams.) And they’re tasty even in the summer. But what does one serve which fried clams?

Beer is the safe bet with fried food. Kind of a wheat-on-wheat combo. Bud, Rolling Rock, Stella Artois are my favorites cause they’re cheap and easy to get, like my cousin Rhonda.

If you want to get fancy try Dreadnaught IPA, an India pale ale from Three Floyds Brewing Company. Three Floyds is in Indiana and they make some other beers but this one’s their highest-rated. Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout also scored high as did La Fin Du Monde Belgian style strong pale ale from Unibroue, a Canadian brewer. These beers will go very nicely with fried, batter-covered fish and crustaceans.

For fresh, raw clams and oysters there’s nothing like a sauvignon blanc. Some people like a muscadet, a wine made from the melon de Bourgogne grape. The problem is muscadet’s a shy little wine and it’s hard to find great one in the USA unless you luck onto a wine store that specializes in wines of the Loire Valley. Bossard Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie $15.99 is pretty good, and a glass with a plate of shellfish will conjure up memories of that little seaside brasserie in Saint-Nazaire.

Here are some nice sauvignon blanc’s that go well with seafood, won’t break the bank and you can brown bag into a place like Brown’s Lobster Pound.

Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, $15.99. Herbaceous and lemony with a touch of sweetness and a non-tannic finish that goes with lemon and vinegar.

Drylands Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, $14.99. The Marlborough is a on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island and has nothing to do with cigarettes. The wine is full bodied with an austere tannic center that gives it enough oomph to stake a claim on flavor when paired with seafood.

From California here’s my top Sauv Balncs;

Matanzas Creek- $17.99 from Sonoma, Silverado $13.99 from Napa, Girard $16.99 Napa, Chateau Souverain $10.99 Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, Callaway Coastal from the Central Coast region $5.99, Cakebread $19.99 from Napa and my favorite Grgich Hills from Napa $22.99

All these wine taste of the soil they were grown in, they’re minimally manipulated and they’re made for summer foods that are light on richness and heavy on fresh, slightly acidic or salty flavors.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at tprotzman@sbcglobal.net.


Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com


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