Tip a handful of clams into a deep pan over a high flame, chuck in a splash of white wine, a twist or two of pepper - no salt - and cover them tightly for a minute. Lift the lid and turn the open shells and their juices into a warm dish. What you get is the very essence of the sea, as if a wave has just slapped you in the face. I guess that's why they are 10 quid a kilo now.
There was a time when you could feast on tiny clams, a great cauldron of them steamed and served with a bowl of thick, garlicky mayonnaise. Now you have to eke them out with mussels or spaghetti, unless, of course, you are very rich.
I say eke them out with spaghetti as if the result was second best instead of one of the classics of the Italian kitchen. I take the simple route to linguine alle vongole - no tomatoes - because it is better, by which I mean cleaner-tasting, purer, more honest, somehow. Red chilli, parsley and garlic get a look in because they flatter the clams rather than fight them for supremacy.
I prefer to steam the clams and pinch the flesh from the shells. Spaghetti (actually I use the finer linguine) is trial enough; adding clattery bivalves in their shells turns this into an obstacle course rather than dinner.
It's the tiny vongole you are after. Fifty to the half-kilo and exquisitely understated in their tight shells of beige, ivory and charcoal. Believe me, this is as chic as supper gets. The fat clams in shells as big as a baby's fist are too tough, even if you chop the flesh. Save them for soup.
Mention clams and soup in the same breath and almost everyone thinks of chowder, and New England clam chowder at that. The classic recipes with their butter and flour, potatoes, milk and cream do less for me than they probably should. I feel the fish is drowning in creamy blandness. More to my taste is the soup that appears in David Thompson's wonderful Thai Food (£25, Pavilion), where the clams are dropped into hot stock and seasoned with salt, sugar, a smashed red chilli, lime juice and coriander leaves. The hot, sour, salty result manages to be both vibrant and yet restrained.
I have given up ordering anything with clams in French restaurants. What you get is two open shells perched on top of a piece of cod looking slightly embarrassed, like they have turned up at the wrong party. It's their juices you should be after. That is why spaghettini con vongole is so good - the pasta soaks up some of the juices from the shellfish - and why clams cooked like moules marinière, with garlic, parsley and white wine are so much more interesting than when they are cooked with dairy produce.
The simplest and, I think, most effective way to make the most of their juices is to soak the clams in cold water for a good half hour, swishing them round with your hand to help remove any grit. Put a large pan over the heat and put the clams in together with a splash or two of dry vermouth or water.
Cover the pan tightly then leave the clams to cook for barely a minute or two under full steam. Lift the lid and peep inside. If most of the shells are open, then remove the pan from the heat and pour the lot into a sieve over a bowl or jug. Tip the clams into a warm dish then pour the juices through a fine sieve lined with muslin or a clean J-cloth.
At that point you may well be tempted to tuck in without further ado. The rest of us will just have to get the spaghetti out.
Linguine alle Vongole
500g small clams in their shells
a glass of white wine or vermouth
2 cloves garlic
3 tbsps of olive oil
a good pinch of crushed, dried chillies
a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley
Scrub the clams, throwing away any that are chipped or open. Leave them to soak in cold water for half an hour or so.
Put a large pan of water on to boil. Drain the clams and tip them into a medium-sized pan set over a moderate heat. Pour in the white wine or vermouth and cover them tightly with a lid. After 1 or 2 minutes - no longer - lift the lid and check their progress. If most of the shells are open, turn off the heat. If not, give them a minute or so longer.
Generously salt the boiling water and lower in the pasta. Lift the clams from their liquor and pick out each morsel of clam flesh. Discard the shells, but not the cooking liquor.
Peel the garlic and thinly slice it, then let it soften in a tablespoon or so of the olive oil over a low heat. It must not colour. Stir in a good pinch of dried chillies, then roughly chop the parsley leaves and add them to the pan. Let them cook briefly, then strain in the cooking liquor from the clams and let it bubble down for a minute.
Test the pasta for doneness, you want it to be tender but on the tacky side. About nine minutes should do it. Drain the pasta, tip it in with the clam liquor, then stir in the shelled clam meat. Grind over a little black pepper and pour in the remaining olive oil, toss gently and serve in warm, shallow bowls.
Serves 2, with seconds.
A clear, hot mussel soup
Inspired by David Thompson's clam soup, I have done something similar with mussels, which are a cheaper alternative to clams at about a quarter the price. The stock should be a mild one - either of chicken or vegetable. This is a clean-tasting broth, hot and aromatic. If you wish to add fish sauce or even soy sauce then do - but I suspect the recipe will lose its clean, simple flavours. The coriander is essential.
1kg mussels in their shells
800ml light chicken or vegetable stock
a small, hot, red chilli
the juice of 2 limes
a little sugar and sea salt
a handful of coriander leaves
Scrub the mussels thoroughly, tug out any of the fibrous 'beards' that may be hanging from their shells and discard any that are broken or open. I always squeeze each mussel hard, pushing the shells together tightly to check they have some life in them. Any that refuse to close when squeezed or tapped in the side of the sink, or any that seem light for their size, should be discarded.
Tip the mussels into a large heavy pot with a splash of water over a high flame. Cover them tightly with a lid and let them steam for a minute or two, till their shells are just open and the mussels are quivering and juicy. Remove them from the heat the second they are ready.
Bring the stock to the boil. Cut the chillies in half, remove their seeds and chop the flesh very finely, then put it in with the stock, together with the lime juice, a pinch of salt and sugar. Turn the stock down to a simmer.
Remove the mussels from their cooking liquor, pull the flesh from the shells and drop it into the pan of stock, with a little of the mussel juices. Roughly chop the coriander leaves and stir them into the hot soup. Serves 2.