Although this post is about where the saying “warming the cockles of my heart” comes from, it is also all about cockles – and my most memorable food moment of last year. It’s hard to believe, but that highlight was a small bowl of the most wonderful cockles I have ever seen.
It was late July and we were at the Guildhall Tavern in Poole, Dorset, one of our favourite French restaurants. The cockles on offer as a starter were so fresh, said our host Severine, that they were not even on the menu yet.
The experience was made even better by the fact we ate outdoors – the restaurant had opened up a new patio area that very day and we were among the first to dine there.
The cockles had been caught by a lad off Sandbanks and there was some sentiment in my choice of starter, as my ancestors were fishermen in Poole Harbour and I still have relatives who catch shellfish there.
The cockles were huge, juicy and perfect, with that slight blue-grey sheen that reminds me of white porcelain. They were served with the tiniest cubes of tomato and some herbs, possibly very fine chervil. White vinegar on the side was an option, but I didn’t use much. I wish I had taken a picture, but I was too busy eating the cockles!
In comparison, the cockles I buy in Cardiff Market are OK for use in seafood pasta or paella, but they are absolutely tiny. I even wonder if they are the same species.
Some people call them clams, but that word covers a large range of bivalve (two-shelled) molluscs, not just cockles. The cockles I am talking about are classified as members of the family Cardiidae. They live in the sand of sheltered beaches all over the world but in Europe the main species is the common cockle, Cerastoderma edule (the Latin name meaning “horny-skinned edible”).
Interestingly from the point of view of “cockles of my heart”, the paired shells are heart-shaped when viewed from the side, which I had never noticed before. The family name Cardiidae does indeed come from the Greek kardia, meaning heart.
Cockles have three small gaps in the mantle lining their shells, through which they stick their in-and-out tubes for siphoning seawater to filter plankton as food, and for the foot. They can burrow into the sand using this foot, and can even “jump” in a small way by flexing it.
Looking at the diagram of a bivalve above, I am surprised to find how many organs there are inside that little body – heart, kidney, digestive and nervous systems. No eyes, though.
Our word cockle comes from the French coquille, which ultimately comes from the Greek konchylion, from konche – who hasn’t heard of “conch shells”? But confusingly the French use coque to mean shell or hull and coquille to mean shellfish generally. They also sometimes use the word clovisse to mean cockle (or sometimes clam).
Taking that further, in French coquilles St Jacques means scallops, referring to St James, whose symbol was the scallop shell, worn by pilgrims on his Santiago de Compostela route (see why he was associated with scallops here).
The scallop is another tasty bivalve, but can easily be distinguished from a cockle by the design of its shell. Scallop shells are flatter and have “auricles” (small triangular ears near the hinge), while cockles don’t. And cockles live buried in sand while scallops attach themselves to the seafloor by a byssus thread or roam free, flapping their shells to fly through the water.
But I did say we’d look at the saying “warming the cockles of my heart”…
I was once told it was because the heart has “auricles” – “cockles” is a rough pronunciation of it, a bit like “asparagus” and “sparrowgrass”.
When I was at school we said the heart had four chambers, two auricles and two ventricles, but I see now the word for the chambers at the top is “atrium” and “auricle” is just used for the little “ears” of the heart (note a previous mention of the word above, under scallop shells).
So here are some other explanations I have seen for the saying:
– Maybe it’s because bivalve molluscs open up when they are warmed, especially in a pan of boiling water. Opening up your heart to someone is good.
– The word “cockle” can also mean a kiln (probably from the Dutch word kachel) and firing up the kiln of the heart is also no doubt a good thing.
But the last two explanations are probably fanciful, as the first mention of “cockles of the heart” said nothing about warming. It was in 1671, when Suffolk clergyman and satirist John Eachard wrote “This contrivance of his did inwardly rejoice the cockles of his heart.”
So we come to the most probable explanations, as Eachard would have known Latin:
– It may be a corruption of the Latin cochleae in cochleae cordis (“ventricles of the heart”) – interestingly the word cochlea literally means a snail (and you will also find one in the inner ear).
– It may have come from the Latin corculum, meaning “little heart” or even “sweetheart”, cor being the Latin for heart.
Anyway, I have vowed to appreciate it more when I next eat cockles, even the small ones in a tub, eaten with a wooden fork at the seaside…
Cockle (from the Old English word coccel) is also the word for a cornfield wildflower, Agrostemma githago, now uncommon because of modern farming methods. The word doesn’t seem to exist in other Germanic languages, but may have come into Old English from the Latin coccus, meaning berry. Although I wonder if it came from Celtic – coch is the Welsh word for red. Although the corncockle is pink, I don’t think they had a word for pink in those days.