Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Machas a la parmesana

Machas a la parmesana, (surf clams au gratin) one of the classics of Chilean cuisine, was created 50 years ago in Viña del Mar by an Italian immigrant, Edoardo Melotti Ferrari, at left with his Spaghetti Tutto di Mare.

Don Edoardo says:
Machas a la parmesana don’t exist in Italy, and in Chile there is no reference to them before the 50s! I made other au gratin dishes, and had parmigiano to put on pasta, and from this, one day it occurred to me to try it with machas. I tested it around four times and then added them to the menu.[1]

Felicidades a Don Edorado! Cheese with seafood is a definite no-no in traditional Italian cooking: it overpowers the taste of the seafood; it is not done, “Not in our culture. No. Never.”[2] But expatriates and immigrants are different; we break with tradition, speak (more or less) foreign languages, live where summer is winter, marry exotic Chilenas, and put cheese on our seafood. So Don Edorado’s dish became a Chilean classic: delicious and served everywhere, including his Ristorante San Marco, where 200 kg. of machas a week are served a la parmesana.

Machas (Mesodesma donacium), surf clams, have, of course, been part of Amerindian cuisine forever: Archaeologists refer to the “Machas Phase,” 10,600 to 8,000 BP (years before present) of southern coastal Peru, based their frequency in coastal middens of that period.[3]

They inhabit sandy beaches from northern Peru to Chiloe Island in south-cental Chile, in the surf to depths of about 5 meters. Historically they were harvested by wading “orilleros” (shoreliners) who were limited to depths of 1.5 m (5 feet) or so, but starting in the 1970s “hookah” divers breathing through air lines began to harvest the clam beds working from boats just outside the surf line. By 1989 the Chilean harvest was over 17,000 metric tons, but three years later it had fallen to about 11,000 tons and by 2000 to only 1,250 tons. While over-exploitation by divers is partly responsible, El Niño events—warming of surface waters along the South American Pacific coast—seem to be more significant in the “boom and bust fishery” of machas.[4] (Machas are not threatened [5] and I found no suggestions that we should avoid eating them.)

A good thing, because they are really good, and although I assume that they are much more expensive than in the past, they are currently available in supermarkets and the local ferias at 1500 to 2000 CLP/kg. ($1.30-1.70/lb), or precooked and frozen at about $20 a lb. Fresh is better, and you get the shells (30-35 to the kg.).

So, how does one go from live clams to machas a la parmesana? They should be refrigerated until ready to use, and then opened with a small sturdy knife. Inside is the muscular “tongue” (anatomically the “foot” used to dig through the sand) and the body. All is eatable, but only the tongue is used for this dish, so strip away the rest with your fingers and discard (or save for broth). Wash away any sand, pound the tongue gently with a knife handle to relax the muscle, and squeeze out any black substance at the base.

The result will look like this:

Don Edoardo’s original recipe returned the tongues to the half shell, added a dollop of butter and a spoon of grated parmesan, baked them in a hot oven for a few minutes and served them with wedges of lemon.

Today’s variations include:
  • Adding a little lemon juice or white wine before baking
  • Adding cream
  • Using other cheese—usually Chilean queso mantecoso
  •  Adding a sliver of garlic (un-Chilean, but like Don Edoardo, I’m an immigrant and don’t always follow the rules.)

When cooked, the tongues turn pink--hence “pink clams” as they are sometimes marketed to English speakers.
As good as machas a la parmesana are, machas are versatile and can be prepared like other shellfish. For Spaghetti Tutto di Mare, in the photo with Don Edorado, they are combined with tuna, mussels, clams, shrimp, squid, and locos (Chilean abalone) and a light buttery marinara sauce, served over pasta and, of course, topped with grated parmesan (and cilantro). They are also served in classic Chilean style with salsa verde (onion, parsley, lemon juice and oil) or mayonnaise, in fried empanadas, in soups with milk or beer, with pesto, and even in Bloody Marys.

[1] Fredes, César. Almorzando con el padre de las machas a la parmesana. La Nación Magazine, Jan. 18, 2009. http://www.lanacion.cl/prontus_noticias_v2/site/artic/20090117/pags/20090117192601.htm
[2] Trachtenberg, Robert. Just Grate. Food: The Way We Eat. New York times Magazine, March 30, 2008
[3] Sandweiss, D.H., 2008. Early Fishing Societies in Western South America, Handbook of South American Archaeology, Helaine Silverman and William Isbell, eds. New York: Springer Science. p. 150.
[4] Perez E, Eduardo P Y Chavez V, Javier E. Modelaje Del Comportamiento Dinámico A Corto Plazo De La Pesquería Del Bivalvo Mesodesma Donacium En El Norte De Chile Usando Hipótesis De Capturabilidad Estática Y Dinámica. INCI. [online]. abr. 2004, vol.29, no.4 [citado 12 Junio 2009], p.193-198. on line at <http://www.scielo.org.ve/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0378-18442004000400006&lng=es&nrm=iso>;
Illanes Bücher, Juan Enrique. 2002 Acuicultura Para La Recuperacion Del Recurso Macha Mesodesma Donacium (Lamarck, 1818) En Areas De Manejo De Comunidades Artesanales. on line at http://ri.conicyt.cl/575/article-11007.html; and
Thiel, Martin et al 2007. The Humboldt Current System of Northern And Central Chile Oceanographic Processes, Ecological Interactions and Socioeconomic Feedback in Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review ,2007, 45:195-344 © R. N. Gibson, R. J. A. Atkinson, and J. D. M. Gordon, Editors. Taylor & Francis on line at


  1. I loved manchas when I worked in Chile. Is there a U S substitute (little neck clams)??

  2. Rick,

    I've never lived on the US east coast where littleneck clams are available, but since they (and cherry-stone clams)are used for a similarly prepared dish, clams casino (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clams_casino) they should be fine. Give them a try and let me know.

    Best wishes - Jim

  3. Hey Jim, just to let you know I just found your post as I was looking for recipes in english for my relatives. I loved the details about Don Edoardo and the information about machas. Anyway, cheers. I hope you are ok.

  4. Hey Jim, just to let you know I just found your post as I was looking for recipes in english for my relatives. I loved the details about Don Edoardo and the information about machas. Anyway, cheers. I hope you are ok.


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