What a plucky little creature is the cockle. Having survived government bans, health scares and gastronomic prejudice, it is gradually regaining status as one of Britain's finest foods. We must all champion the plump and tasty bivalve that thrives on our shorelines, says Christopher Hirst

Renowned for forming 50 per cent of the merchandise of Sweet Molly Malone, the cockle is praised by Alan Davidson in his encyclopedic volume North Atlantic Seafood as "a valuable and delicious food". Tasty though it may be, it was somewhat surprising to see the humble bivalve making headlines this summer. Just recently, 37 suspected illegal Chinese immigrants were arrested during a swoop on unregistered cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire. A week later, Essex cockle fishermen marched on Downing Street in protest against a two-year closure of their cockle beds. Normally, such demonstrations have scant effect on government. Not in this case; immediately after the protest, the bans were lifted.

This strange sequence of events stems from bans imposed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on many English and Welsh cockle beds following the alleged detection of dangerous levels of toxins in the shellfish. Morecambe Bay escaped, hence the invasion of outside "gangs". Along with the major Essex beds, which contain most of the UK's cockle assets, bans were imposed on beds in Bury Inlet in South Wales, and in the Wash (the latter remain in place).

While acknowledging the need to keep a close check on the health of their filter-feeding livestock, cockle fishers maintain that the closure and sudden reopening of their beds has more to do with inaccuracies in the FSA's testing procedures than problems with the shellfish.

"If I were a cynic I'd say something very odd has been going on," says Rory Parsons, a spokesman for the South Wales cockle fishers. "It's all been a bloody nonsense as far as I'm concerned." It certainly seems a coincidence that the serious problems with English and Welsh cockle beds were detected in June 2001 when the FSA transferred the testing of cockles from the National Reference Laboratory in Aberdeen to the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) in Weymouth. Without going into details (toxin levels are assessed via an unpleasant technique known as the Mouse Bioassay Test), the cocklemen insist that the test was simply done wrongly by the Cefas laboratory. They claim that inadequate testing procedures produced atypical results.

Samples that were repeatedly declared positive by Cefas produced negative results when sent to laboratories in Holland, Sweden, France and Spain, and to the National Reference Laboratory. Scottish cockle beds, which continued to be tested at the Aberdeen facility, remained open. As further confirmation of their doubts about the Cefas technique, Essex cocklers point out that people illegally taking cockles from the closed beds have remained perfectly healthy. Rubbing salt into their wounds, the FSA continued to allow the import of cockles that were not subject to the same contentious tests as the English and Welsh ones.

"Our industry has been brought to its knees by the total incompetence of the FSA and the laboratory it employs," says Andrew Ratley of Kershaw's Quality Foods, which was forced to lay off 50 employees at cockle-processing plants in South Wales and the Thames estuary. "The closure of the beds affected 3,000 families in England and Wales. Some cockle people are back at work, others aren't. As things stand, we don't know from one week to the next if we're going to be in work. The FSA could close us down tomorrow."

Ratley's company has instituted a judicial review of the FSA and other authorities which imposed the ban. "It caused absolute disaster within the industry and the cost will run into millions of pounds," he says. "The whole of the industry will be seeking compensation." This could be substantial. The 14-month closure of the 11,000-acre South Wales cockle beds resulted in losses of more than £4m. The cockle beds around the Essex coast, totalling about 450,000 acres in area, were closed for two years.

It may seem strange that this acrimonious bust-up has arisen over a foodstuff that most British people know only from tiny platefuls at the seaside or the curiously popular pickled version. Yet cockle fishing is big business. When unaffected by bans, the industry normally dredges up 19,000 tonnes a year of the tiny, ridged shells. Occasionally, this harvest can rise to as high as 40,000 tonnes.

Who is eating such large quantities of cockles in Britain? No one, really. "We eat very, very few," says Dr Clive Askew, the assistant director of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain. "Our cockles mostly go to Holland and Spain for canning. If you go down to Poole harbour on a Tuesday night, you will see lorry after lorry taking our cockles to Spain. It's the same old story - we have a wonderful product, but we don't appreciate it. It would take quite a few Sunday teas comprising saucers of cockles to account for 20,000 tonnes a year." Our biggest fisheries in the Thames estuary and the Wash are dominated by Dutch interests.

In case you're thinking that a temporary halt to cockle fishing might be good for the preservation of stocks, think again. The cockle is not only delicious but extremely prolific. Beds have been known to contain up to 10,000 per square metre. If they're not harvested, Askew says, "they get so thickly clustered that they push themselves into ridges and get washed away by winter storms. Particularly in the Thames estuary, the cockle beds need to be worked."

We used to eat cockles in soups and pies, and fried with bacon (roll the cockles in flour or oatmeal first), but the British appear to have lost their taste for the bivalves during shellfish poisoning scares early in the last century. Some chefs are trying to restore the cockle to its place in British cuisine. Expressing a sentiment worthy of the Romantic poets, Rick Stein maintains that "raking cockles out of the mud, in hail, sun and rain, suits us as human beings," though Wordsworth would probably have regarded Stein's cockle and laver-bread vol-au-vents as a bit on the fancy side. His chowder-like cockle cream with bacon, tomatoes and potatoes may have appealed more to the Cumberland curmudgeon.

Fergus Henderson, our leading advocate of plain English fare, offers a starter of cockles steamed in their shells with pickled shallots at his St John restaurant in Clerkenwell, London. Equally ungussied is his salad of fresh boiled and shelled cockles with raw, thinly sliced white cabbage in a dressing of chervil, lemon juice, olive oil and capers. At the Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill, Hywel Jones serves cockles as part of his one-man campaign for the resuscitation of Welsh cuisine. "Cockles remind me of childhood visits to Pen-clawdd Bay," he says. "People always think of them in a little tub, but they could be used in a lot of other ways. They make a nice soup or broth. I sometimes do pan-fried sea bass and cockle broth (I add a touch of curry) with laver bread and bacon croquants."

Rowley Leigh, the chef-patron of Kensington Place, maintains that our disregard for cockles is "a classic piece of food snobbery - just because we've got them on our doorstep, we ignore them". He is not surprised that the majority of our cockles end up in Spain. "The Spanish always appreciate our seafood more than we do and are prepared to pay accordingly. The trouble with us is that cockles are sold at the wrong end of the market. They're sold along with whelks, jellied eels and winkles. The Welsh eat them with laver bread, which is one of the most disgusting things known to man."

Insisting that "cockles are actually better than clams," Leigh says he would serve them more frequently if he could ensure a regular supply. "They're fantastic when freshly cooked with spaghetti. A cockle sauce - you just add a dash of cream and chopped chives to the cooking liquor - works wonderfully well with white fish. You can use them in the Portuguese style, with ham or chorizo. As a matter of fact, I've just bought some pork cheeks that would be very good with clams or, better still, cockles."

But not all our chefs are sold on cockles. Jeremy Lee of the Blueprint Café at Shad Thames, London expelled a fiery snort at the idea. "They look far better than they are. They taste like nose-blow: vinegar, please! Life's too short to bother with them."

If you are cooking cockles, it is best to get them in shell. They're less gritty, and the pan juice is richly flavoursome. The main problem is getting your hands on them. A few fishmongers sell cockles in shell, and early-rising Londoners can get them at Billingsgate market for about £2.50 a kilogram. Waitrose sold live, fresh cockles until three years ago. The reason that these attractive bivalves ceased to appear on the chain's fish counters has a sadly familiar ring. "We used to buy them from Poole harbour but, unfortunately, they have now switched to selling abroad," a Waitrose spokesperson says. An attempt to source a supply from South Wales was kiboshed by the FSA ban.

Cooked cockles are far more commonly available, but these are of very variable quality. At their best, they are plump, fleshy and endowed with a maritime tang, both sweet and savoury, but too often they are utterly bereft of flavour. No wonder we reach for the pepper and vinegar.

This brings us to the mysterious British taste for pickled cockles. "Lots of people swear by fresh cockles, but in the UK the next best is pickled," says Rory Parsons. This view is explained by his position as the boss of Parsons Pickles, the only UK supplier of this acetic treat. "We sell about £5m a year of the little beasties at 90p a jar. Sales are doing very well, going up year by year."

If, like the Spanish, we held the fresh cockle in high regard, the FSA's draconian and dubious ban would never have happened. It is high time we made the most of this underrated national asset. Those who want cockles in vinegar are welcome to them, but how much better to enjoy cockles as part of a fruits de mer, cockles cooked with ham in a Portuguese cataplina, cockles with scrambled egg in the Welsh style, or the Irish dish of baked codling garnished with cockles. Let's not be scared of the little bivalve. After all, this is the country that produced the Cockleshell Heroes.