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Eat Near: How Joe Island Clams raises millions of bivalves right in Tampa Bay

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Joe Island Clams owner Kyle Brinkley, with a machine used to sort and bag his Tampa Bay clams / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Joe Island Clams owner Kyle Brinkley, with a machine used to sort and bag his Tampa Bay clams / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

It's dim and quiet inside The Clam House, dim because all the lights except for the tubed Christmas lights have been shut off, quiet because the Palmetto restaurant doesn't open till dinnertime, and it's only now noon. Owner Kyle Brinkley calls the eatery, which mixes traditional sushi with old-school Florida dishes, a "bucket list" venture, just something he and his wife, Deanna, have always wanted to do.

Brinkley's main business, his bread and butter, lies to the north, in Tampa Bay, specifically on and around Joe Island, a small curved island just north of the spot where the Sunshine Skyway first stretches away from the mainland. It's there where Brinkley raises and harvests millions of clams each year.

Brinkley got into clam farming after years in as a commercial fisherman and stints in the clamming business up and down the east coast and the gulf. But when new regulations began limiting catch sizes and shrinking the zones in which he could fish, he decided to give aquaculture farming a try, and, just over a decade ago, invested $275,000 in getting the Joe Island operation up and running. It took him four years to turn a profit, but the venture has grown and grown. Nowadays, he purchases and plants 7 million juvenile clams a year in 14 acres of estuarine water.

Joe Island clams in a fettucine dish created by Marcella Hazan / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Joe Island clams in a fettuccine dish created by Marcella Hazan / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Those northern quahog clams go into four-by-four mesh bags sunk eight to 14 feet deep, where they munch on wild algae and grow till their "hinge width" is an inch or a bit bigger. The process, during which they're sorted and moved around, takes over 18 months total. At the end of the line, they're "purged" to get rid of their grit, then sorted according to size and bagged up. Sixty-five percent of Brinkley's 7 million juveniles make it to distribution. Most are sold to seafood distributors; many end up on plates at The Clam House. And if you'd like to buy a bag for yourself, just ask the bartender.

So how do they taste? Superb. Brinkley likes his raw, but he's also happy to share a basic recipe for steamed clams with a touch of butter and garlic. He also debunks some clam-consuming myths I've heard. Don't bother soaking clams in water before cooking them, he says. They won't open up in fresh water anyway. And you don't have to throw away clams that don't open. Brinkley uses a machine called a tumbler that gets rid of any clams that have died.

A devoted fan of clams and pasta, I decide to insert some Joe Islanders into a Marcella Hazan recipe I've never tried before. While she calls for me to discard the shells, I like the dramatic presentation they provide, so I leave the clams intact. Of course the true joy of pasta with clams is the divine juice that spurts out as the clams open. The sauce is what matters—not the "snot of meat," as Mario Batali put it memorably in Bill Buford's book Heat.

The Joe Island bivalves give off plenty of succulent juice, more than enough to bring a clammy essence to my whole plate of pasta. The clams still have a bit of grit in them, but I don't even care; I'm too delighted to be slurping up my saline noodles. Kissed with acid from white wine and cherry tomatoes, the end result is exceedingly delicious. No wonder Brinkley wanted to open The Clam House—his seafood deserves to be shown off.

The Clam House is located at 304 7th St. W., Palmetto. For more information, call 721-8774 or visit theclamhouse.com. For more information about Joe Island Clams, call 448-9618 or visit joeislandclams.com.

This is the 55th entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at eatnearsrq@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.

 

Last modified: September 2, 2014
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