Our small boat is carving its way past thick, dark patches of mangroves, past the sand banks and past the tiny fishing settlements that only go by port numbers. Puerto 25, says the faded marker where the boats are docked, painted in vivid colours, a bit unsteady-looking. We hop on one of them and make our way through the muddy channels towards the open sea.
We are on the border with Ecuador, way up north in Peru, a plane ride from Lima, far from everything. It's here where the restaurants in the capital get their black clams from, conchas negras, a controversial delicacy that's long been a beloved part of the Peruvian cuisine.
For Peruvians it’s an aphrodisiac, this cockle that imbibes itself, leech-like, with the sap of mangrove roots. The sweet, firm meat with a slightly irony after-taste gives the clam a distinct, extreme, orgasmic flavour. When you crack it open, the juice drips down your fingers like thick, dark blood. When you’re doing a conchas negras ceviche, which is the most common way for Peruvians to consume this mollusc, it resembles a massacre.
Peru is not the only country where you can find black clams, but Peruvians are the only ones eating them raw, mixed with lemon juice, chillies, coriander and shallots, in a mouth-watering ceviche. In Central America they don’t eat them at all. They do however export them to Peru, where the demand is so high the supply is running dry. In the past 15 years the shellfish have been ravaged so intensely that they are now an endangered and highly-contested food item. Activists have stepped in with campaigns vilifying those who consume them, and some of the more conscious foodies have opted not to touch them at all.
“I don't eat it anymore and have friends who do the same,” says Paola Miglio, a renowned Peruvian food writer. “There are also chefs who are trying not to use it, but people want the black clam because they consider it a delicacy and feel very proud of eating them. For connoisseurs, the black clam that grows on the Peruvian side is tastier than the one on the Ecuadorian side, because in Peru the fresh water mixes with the sea,” she explains.
To see what the fuss is all about we head to Tumbes, and its protected mangrove sanctuary. It is renowned for its biodiversity, especially its aerial wildlife, so the boat ride feels like entering a movie set on Hitchcock's The Birds. Flocks and flocks of them, circling over us, piercing the air with their haunting shrieks. Standing in as our captain is Andre Patsias, one of the most exciting young chefs in a country that in recent years has become a top culinary destination. Patsias, half Peruvian, half Greek, has worked in some of the most high-profile restaurants, like Noma, Mugaritz and Central. In 2018, he opened his own restaurant, Statera (the name is from the Greek word for ‘equilibrium’, and is tattooed on Patsias’s forearm, you know, as chefs do).
A lot like Virgilio Martinez, Patsias found his equilibrium and inspiration in diverse Peruvian landscapes, from the rugged mountainscapes of the Andes, to the mangrove coast of Tumbes. Up there he works with Biosfera, an NGO whose task is to protect the fragile ecosystem and regulate the harvesting of black clams. Patsias was the first chef who started collaborating with them to use the black clams more sustainably, and to look for possible alternatives.
“I think concha negra is an amazing product, very exotic. For me it's like caviar, and has all of this finesse, richness, umami, it's beautiful,” he tells me. “In the past 15 years we’ve had huge consumption of black clams, but it hasn’t been well managed, so it became endangered, because people aren’t respecting their breeding time and other things. They will breed, we just need to give them space and a window to re-establish.” For that, Biosfera imposed regulations with a months-long ban on harvesting during the breeding periods, plus a minimum size requirement. For some though, like Miglio, that period is still too short, and they are pushing for a 2 year-long moratorium.
In the meantime, Patsias found an alternative. Pata de mule is bigger than the black clam, but the taste is practically the same, so he is trying to entice Peruvians to switch their go-to mollusc. With Biosfera, he has also been developing a study to figure out the reproduction cycle of patas de mula to make it a regular alternative.
“As opposed to conchas negras, patas de mula can go into the sea flow. They can be left on the sea shore, for a week on the scorching sun, without contact with water and yet they will survive. You can just pick them from the beach. And that's what makes it gastronomically beautiful, because it can travel for 7 days and will keep its freshness,” explains Javier Masias, a food writer from Lima. He has an in-depth knowledge of both the high-end spectrum of Peruvian gastronomy and its traditional rural backbone which is why he sees shades of grey in the conchas negras debate. “We have people's hunger vs. Peruvian interest, but it's also true that fishermen depend on this product to survive,” he says.
The local fishermen rely on conchas negras to make ends meet, to feed their families in an area where resources are scarce, and clams which sell for 40 sols (10 euros) per 100 pieces have almost the status of gold nuggets. Think of them as truffles of the sea, if you will.
We follow one of the fishermen into the quicksand of mangroves, sinking deeper and deeper in greyish mud, at one point almost waist-deep, as the adrenaline kicks in. At low tide the harvesters head to the thick, eerie-looking mangrove curtain, equipped with stitched-up, home-made gloves that stretch to the elbows and protect the arms from the sharp shell edges. Patsias is already a pro at this, like a guerrilla fighter in a jungle battle, effortlessly wading through sticky mud to reach the roots that twist and turn under layers of dirty water. He reaches deep underneath, like a blind man searching for treasure, as his fingers get tangled in roots resembling giant octopus tentacles.
Conchas negras harvesters pass their vocation from generation to generation, from father to son, teaching their offspring this hard, messy trade. Back in the day, they picked 800-1000 clams a day – today, not more than a hundred. In order to help them out and diversify their income, Biosfera set up tours that take tourists to the mangroves, show them the work of the harvesters and explain why regulation is necessary. They call it ‘turismo vivencial’ (experience tourism), and it is slowly becoming a crucial off-season source of income for the harvesters. New life in the mangroves.