How the royal visit might boost West Coast's phallic clam

On their latest visit to Canada, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge gave a boost to a handful of causes. As CBC Radio food columnist Khalil Akhtar found, the royal visit also highlighted the issue of sustainable seafood consumption — thanks to a meal featuring a strange clam.

Geoduck, served to Prince William and Kate, is praised as sustainable seafood but not popular at home

Britain's Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, sample food during the Taste of British Columbia event at Mission Hill winery in Kelowna, B.C., on Sept. 27, 2016. Included on the menu was the unusual-looking geoduck. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

On their latest visit to Canada, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge gave a boost to a handful of causes.

A women's shelter in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the Great Bear Rainforest and military families all got time in the spotlight.

And as CBC Radio food columnist Khalil Akhtar found, the royal visit also highlighted the issue of sustainable seafood consumption — thanks to a meal featuring a strange clam that became a catalyst for conversation.

What is geoduck?

When Ned Bell got the invite to showcase some of B.C.'s seafood for Prince William and Kate, he didn't hesitate. Nor did he have to think too long about what to cook for the royals.

Bell is the executive chef at the Vancouver Aquarium, so he focuses on sustainable seafood. That led to his decision to highlight shellfish in particular.

"Of course, shellfish is a filter feeder, and leaves the ocean cleaner than it found it," he said.

"It's a real fast food — it's affordable and abundant, and something that we should all be eating more of, so we had oysters and clams and geoduck."

Though considered sustainable seafood, geoduck can be a hard sell because of its unusual appearance. (Underwater Harvesters Association)
That last might not be familiar to many of us — but geoduck (which is pronounced "gooey-duck") took a moment in the international spotlight after being served to the royal couple. They sampled it as part of a Sept. 27 visit to Kelowna, B.C., where they tasted local wine and dishes prepared by some of the province's best chefs, including Bell.

Geoduck might have seemed an odd choice to some, though. The London Evening Standard, for example, described it as "a giant clam with a long neck which the uninitiated often find off-putting."

All of which is pretty much true. Geoduck is a mollusk — a giant clam — and the biggest burrowing clam in the world. It can reach a weight of up to 7.5 kilograms, and a length of up to two metres.

Besides being sustainable, it's tasty, Bell said.

"It's a very similar texture to calamari," he said. "But you eat it raw, and so it's got a very interesting snap, crunch to it."

Why isn't it more popular in Canada?

Although it's exclusive to the Pacific northwest coast, Canadians don't eat a lot of geoduck. According to a 2012 report prepared for Canada Fisheries and Oceans, B.C. exports 90 per cent or more of its geoduck, mostly to Hong Kong and China.

The trouble with geoduck is that it's a hard sell to a lot of consumers, particularly here in North America.

That's largely because of that "off-putting" appearance. Its long, wrinkly brown neck protrudes out of its shell, and it's typically 30 or 40 centimetres long. In short, it's a phallic clam.

Ned Bell is the executive chef at the Vancouver Aquarium. He served geoduck to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in part to highlight its sustainability. (Facebook)
And its moment on the international stage with the royal visit wasn't entirely positive. The Daily Express noted the royal couple "were required to put duty first and taste one of the most plug-ugly dishes they are ever likely to encounter."

The Telegraph's headline said the "phallic clams" were "the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's greatest challenge."

Even here at home, geoduck has traditionally earned little respect. An episode of CBC TV's Dragon's Den featured a Nanaimo, B.C., aquaculture company trying to convince the famed investors to get behind geoduck, in a segment viewers were cheekily warned contained "graphic images."

It is, as William himself put it, "presentationally challenged."

Why should we eat more of it?

Presentational challenges aside, Bell said there are good reasons we should see the food on more Canadian menus and tables.

"In North America, we consume five or six species pretty specifically. Shrimp, tuna, whitefish, salmon — salmon and shrimp being the most-consumed seafoods in North America," he said.

"We're not very adventurous eaters … in North America. Cultures from around the world love species that are delicious but maybe bizarre-looking."

Thanks in part to the way it's harvested, geoduck is considered a sustainable seafood by groups like SeaChoice, which lists it as a 'best choice.' (Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission)
And he said his geoduck offering to Prince William and Kate was intended, in part, to highlight that point — and to encourage chefs and diners at home to consider geoduck, which is seen as a sustainable seafood choice. 

A David Suzuki Foundation report, for example, noted the geoduck fishing industry is "conscious of not overharvesting," and highlights initiatives such as co-managing harvest areas with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The Suzuki Foundation's SeaChoice program, which aims to help consumers pick sustainable seafood options, lists geoduck as a "best choice."

And now, thanks to plenty of news coverage of a couple of royals chowing down on a bizarre-looking clam, geoduck may finally gain a new fan or two — maybe even enough to build a market for it closer to home.

About the Author

Khalil Akhtar

Food Columnist

Khalil Akhtar is a syndicated food columnist for CBC Radio. He takes a weekly look at some of the surprising aspects of your daily diet. Khalil is based in Victoria, B.C.