West Indies Whelks, Cittarium pica of the family Tegulidae (also known as “magpie shell” or “West Indian top shell”)
Spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) is today considered a delicacy; but a century ago, in the Caribbean, it was so commonplace that it was used for bait. And queen conch (Eustrombos gigas) has been regarded as a seafood staple for centuries. Not so, however, with whelks: From time immemorial, this sea snail has been regarded as a delicacy on account of its compelling flavor, so much so that prior to preservation laws, it was harvested from coastline rocks to the point of extinction in several island-habitats.
The West Indian (Caribbean) whelk is a marine gastropod mollusk with a characteristic black-and-white shell. Pronounced “wilks” in the English-speaking Caribbean, it is known by different names in the rest of the region: “cigua” in Cuba; “quigua” in Venezuela; “bulgao” or simply “caracoles” (“snails” in Spanish) in the other Spanish-speaking islands. The species is not closely related to that known as “whelk” in Europe and the United States.
Believed to have a lifespan of close to thirty years, West Indian whelks reproduce each year, between the months of June and November, via external fertilization: Males release their sperm into the water, and females simultaneously release their eggs. The species is believed to be a herbivore, feeding primarily at night by actively scraping algal growth off coastline rocks. And it is in the dark of night, when the whelks attach themselves to the rocks at water’s edge in order to feed, that men harvest them (in a process called “picking whelks”), sometimes being washed away by the waves to their deaths in the process. In the case of Bermuda, where whelks were harvested to extinction, they have been reintroduced.
Fabled to be an aphrodisiac, whelks are boiled in their shell, then removed from the shell, cleaned, and prepared in various ways, the most popular being in a traditional butter-sauce consisting of butter, onions, lime juice, some of the stock produced during the boiling of the whelks, and salt to taste. The traditional complement is white rice. Whelks are also combined with shrimp, lobster, squid, cockle, octopus, onion, bell peppers, olives and/or capers, lime juice, and olive oil to make a classic, chilled seafood salad, typically served with avocado and/or sweet potato.