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summer’s over

When the last petals drop from the fireweed, summer is over.

When the last petals drop from the fireweed summer is over.

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Fireweed going to seed.

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an astonishing family bike tour

On Monday morning, I ride out of Seattle, thankfully with considerably less trouble than I had riding into the city, to catch another ferry, this time from Edmonds to Kingston on the Washington Peninsula.

On the peninsula, the small towns I pass through are reminiscent of scenes from Twin Peaks and I find it slightly disturbing. I keep expecting to see odd characters walking down the sidewalks, to glimpse strange happenings out of the corner of my eyes or to come across stray body parts lying on the green lawns. Tom had mentioned that David Lynch was something of a local and it seems to fit although I know nothing of the details.

Lynchville.

Lynchville.

Creepy.

Creepy.

However, nothing of note occurs until late in the afternoon when I see strange forms, in the distance, struggling up a long hill. There is a person pushing an obviously heavy load and I can see a smaller figure dancing alongside. I overtake them as they stop at the crest of the hill to rest. It is a woman, with her daughter – the woman’s bike has a child’s third wheel attached and she is towing a heavily laden trailer behind that. The trailer is jam packed with gear and adorned with car wheel hub caps. I am almost speechless.

“Wow!” is all I can think to say.

“Where you just behind me before?” the woman inquires, “On the big hill?”

“No.” I reply.

“That’s odd” she says, “My husband said he saw a cyclist just behind me when we were coming down that big hill but I never saw them pass me.”

“Hmmmmm.” I say. The Lynchian factor, perhaps.

She informs me that her husband is ahead of her and I should tell him that she is coming, so I continue on my way. I soon come across a man on a Surly Big Dummy long wheel base bike, loaded down with an insane amount of luggage, towing a trailer with two young children sleeping in it.

The man asks me if I have seen his wife and, as I am telling him she should be here soon, the woman and her daughter comes into sight over the hill and pull up beside us. We discuss camp plans and food. We are all hungry and tired. I am utterly fascinated by this family and so I ride with them, keeping their pace. We stop at a grocery store and buy immediately edible junk food and sit outside on the pavement eating – an instant gypsy encampment.

They have a map of the peninsula they picked up from an information centre that details local bike routes and they tell me there is a 30 mile cycle route to Port Townsend which will get us off the highway. I am relieved because the traffic on 101 is fast and heavy.

Many US state and county parks have hiker biker sites, for campers who eschew motorised transport, that are often very cheap. There is a State park nearby and so we decide to check it out. After a short ride on the cycle path we arrive at the park to find two of the sites are already occupied by solo cyclists and we discover that the sites are a hefty fifteen dollars each. I had already agreed that I would share a site with the family to reduce the cost but we strike up conversation with Astrid, an English woman who has been on the road for two years on a round-the-world tour, and she agrees to let us share her site. A tent city springs up.

Fully loaded!

Fully loaded!

Nothing by halves - look at the size of that tent!

Nothing by halves - look at the size of that tent!

Joni and Daeli’s children are Noiel, a six-year-old girl, Elan, a three-year-old boy, and Lovam, an eleven-month-old baby boy. Until recently they have all been living on a thirty foot boat in Panama but it became too crowded for all five of them so they have decided to hit the road on bicycles instead. Joni is American and Daeli is French. Noiel is being home-schooled while they travel, in French, by her father. Elan, the middle child, has evident special needs, with extremely limited mobility and communication skills.

Family life.

Family life.

Noiel playing.

Noiel playing.

A toy for the children.

A toy for the children.

The amount of stuff these people are carrying around on their bikes is astounding. They have a range of gifts that have been given to them recently by well-meaning family members who clearly have no idea whatsoever of what travelling on a bicycle involves. They also seem to have taken everything they possessed on the boat with them. They are carrying things as diverse and superfluous as full size mosquito nets and safety flares, a two way radio set as well as countless toys and books for the children, dress-up clothes… the list is endless. I suddenly feel like an ultra-lightweighter.

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seattle

Loose connections unravel easily and I find my original plans for Seattle disintegrate suddenly. I arrive in the city, trying to traverse freeways on a poorly sign-posted urban bike trail, and wonder why I am here. I realise that I don’t want to be in the city and I have no real reason to be. I stay with Tom and Jacky, ardent cycle tourers that I contact through Warm Showers, and their house provides a welcome hiding place. I don’t go downtown.

I go with Tom and Jacky to a Saturday evening card night and acquire an instant reputation as a card shark by soundly beating all present. It’s a good thing we weren’t playing for money or I might have really been in trouble.

At the party, a precocious five year old introduces herself to me by announcing that she has kindergartenitis – a state which causes you to feel odd in yourself and not wish to attend that institution of infant education. I am impressed, although not necessarily favourably, by meeting such a young child that has a syndrome that she can name and expound upon so eloquently. She goes on to inform me that one of her juvenile colleagues has the condition so seriously that he cannot go to kindergarten at all.

The following day I try to unravel the mysteries of American football by watching the first games of the season on TV, without the sound, while discussing politics, society and the fundamental immorality of war with Tom. We demolish Marx completely, in one swift move, by agreeing that a concern for social justice is, undoubtedly, genetically determined. American football, however, remains a mystery.

Seattle is famous for Bill Gates and Microsoft and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. No doubt a number of other things, too, but I didn’t learn of them.

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back in the usa

I disembark from the ferry on Whidbey Island in the afternoon with no map and no plan. The lawns here, back in the USA, seem a little smoother and greener, the picket fences a shade whiter, national flags far more prevalent.

I stop at a tourist information centre in Anacortes and get a map of the island. The woman at the counter is very excited by my journey and offers plenty of useful advice about the best route out of town and information about the local sights. Mount Erie, a small mountain of around 1300 feet, is on the way out of town. The women looks at my bike and suggests that I might not want to go there as the road is exceptionally steep.

I set off, stopping for an hour or so in Anacortes to check my email, and head south. I am riding out of the Anacortes when a man on a fast road bike makes a u-turn to ask me where I am heading and where I am planning to stay for the night. I tell him that I am heading for Mount Erie and haven’t much thought yet about where to stay for the night, even though the sun is gradually sinking towards the horizon. The man glances at my luggage and also recommends against the ascent to Mount Erie.

We discuss the merits of various campground but then the man offers me a space on his lawn. He is going into town on some errands but says that he will catch up with me on the way back to show me the way. Looking at his bike, I don’t doubt it.

At the turn off to Mount Erie, I hesitate, but only for a second, before setting off up a ridiculously steep gradient. If I’d had any sense at all I would have stashed my panniers in the bushes somewhere. I climb and climb and climb. It is exceptionally steep – car drivers pass me in the opposite direction, open-mouthed at my audacity. I reach the top and walk, unsteadily, to the lookout. As I return to my bike the cyclist reappears, looking much more collected than I feel, and we walk together to the second lookout which provides a view of Mount Rainier.

The view - I forget if this is Mount Baker or Mount Rainier.

The view - I forget if this is Mount Baker or Mount Rainier.

Descending the hill requires less expenditure of energy but is more anxiety producing than the ascent. I am accompanied by the smell of burning rubber. I am tired and I haven’t eaten much during the day and so the couple of miles to the man’s cabin, outside Anacortes, seem long and arduous. Mark, who only admits to being independently wealthy, has just returned from the Burning Man festival in the desert in Nevada. He is a keen cyclist, skier and kayaker.

Eventually we get to his house and while I put up my tent Mark cooks pasta which we eat with olive oil and the goats cheese that I had bought on Salt Springs. After this repast, Mark goes to the larger house next door, which is inhabited by his tenants, who, happily, are chocolate makers. He returns with a box of hand-made truffles and some left over pizza. I eat it all.

We sit up until after midnight discussing relationships, the meaning of life and the endless possibilities of the infinite – and we were cold, stone sober!

The following morning, after a breakfast of porridge, cooked over my camp-stove on the lawn, I continue on my way.

I ride through the sunny day, following the highway and bike paths south across the island. Stars and stripes are flying everywhere and buses flash messages of remembrance alternately with their destination but all this makes no real impression on me until I catch sight of a man with a hand written sign, expressing deep gratitude to Bush and Cheney, standing at a highway intersection.

An unrepentant Bush fan.

An unrepentant Bush fan.

I stop, bemused, and feel the need to ask for further clarification of his message. The date, it turns out, is September 11 but our conversation, which ranges over various matters of domestic and international concern, didn’t reveal much else that was clear to me. I was expecting, however, a far more vitriolic diatribe than transpired and we parted, amicably enough with mutual good wishes – even if in utter mutual incomprehension.

In a repeat of the previous evening’s experience, as the shadows lengthen a cyclist – a women, this time – on a fast road bike overtakes me. She asks about my long- and short-term plans and then offers me a place to stay for the night in her apartment across the water, on the mainland, in the outer suburbs of Seattle.

Donna was aiming to catch the 5.30PM ferry but seems willing to slow to my pace for the six odd miles to the terminal. We ride and talk. Again, I am tired and haven’t eaten enough during the day. Donna offers to swap bikes with me but, although I am tempted, I have never used cleats and don’t feel that this is the time and place to learn. Against expectation, we ride onto the 5.30 ferry, but with only seconds to spare.

In the morning, before I set off, Donna takes my loaded bike for a spin around the block. She returns clearly impressed that I had managed to keep pace with her yesterday on the ride home from Whidbey Island to her apartment.

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leaving canada

I am a little reluctant to move on. My next step, since I have decided not to go into Vancouver, will take me back to the USA and I have mixed feelings about it.

A ferry leaves from Salt Springs, close to Jane and Eric’s house, at Fulford Harbour to Swartz Bay. From there, it is a short ride to Sidney where another ferry will take my to Anacortes on Whidbey Island, one of the US Gulf Islands. Eric assures me that the transition will be quite a gentle one but I am not looking forward to heading back into more and more populated terrain.

I pack, resisting Jane and Eric’s urgings to throw away half my gear. It’s true that I probably carry more stuff than I absolutely need. but I don’t think I carry anything that I haven’t used at least once. As a concession, I leave behind an extra Phillips head screwdriver and I decant some grease and leather treatment for my Brooks saddles into smaller containers. I keep my black dress for possible dinner dates. I haven’t worn it yet.

Jane and I swap books. She gives me a copy of Monkey Beach, a novel by a young First Nation Women from coastal BC, in exchange for my tattered copy of South of the Limpopo by Devla Murphy.

In the morning, Jane rides me to the ferry. I am happy to have spent time with her and Eric again.

Jane with a morning coffee next to my bike, packed and ready to leave.

Jane with a morning coffee, next to my bike - packed and ready to leave.

Eric keeping the house in order.

Eric keeping the house in order.

I have little over half an hour to get six miles from one ferry terminal to the other and I have to negotiate customs and US immigration. I am expecting to see Canadian officials but the ferry to Anacortes is controlled by the US and, no matter that we are still on Canadian soil, the fare is charged in US dollars and it is US border guards barking commands at me and the other travellers. Two fellow cyclists turn out to be a couple that I saw in Stewart – an Australian woman and her Canadian partner who live in Dawson City.

Once we negotiate customs and are aboard the boat we find a sunny place on the deck. The boat chugs away from the Canadian shore and out among the islands. A pod of orca attracts our attention as we talk and suddenly the deck is inundated with people.

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slugs

Slugs are a little gross but some are also pretty amazing. These are a few I have been impressed by.

An impressively textured slug. A nice glossy black, too. I thought it might make a nice pet, actually.

An impressively textured slug. A nice glossy black, too. I thought it might make a nice pet, actually.

An impressively long and colourful slug.

An impressively long and colourful slug.

Perhaps 'SLUGGISHLY' is more approriate than 'SLOW.'

Perhaps SLUGGISHLY would be more approriate than SLOW. I feel a little sluggish some days.

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salt springs

I leave Chris’ house in Nanaimo and ride to Crofton and straight onto a ferry about to embark for Salt Springs. Going to Salt Springs takes me off Vancouver Island and away from the main highway and, better still, Jane and Eric have a cabin on the island. I have their address tucked away somewhere but I am not sure if they are on the island or still up north on their bike trip off the Cassiar Highway around Telegraph Creek.

Riding to Ganges, the main town on the island, I collect blackberries and fill my pannier with apples.

Apples are dropping from the trees everywhere on Salt Springs.

Apples are dropping from the trees everywhere on Salt Springs.

Jane has sketched a little map in my black book and I match the landmarks she has featured with a more detailed map from the information office in Ganges. Their cabin, it turns out, is on the far side of the island.

I am struggling up the last of the incredibly steep hills, wondering what I am going to do if Jane and Eric are not home, when I hear a voice behind me: “I don’t believe it!” Jane jogs, seemingly effortlessly, up the hill. I am exceeding glad of the excuse to get off the bike and push.

We walk together up the rest of the hill and turn off the road to a path leading to a tiny cabin sheltered amongst trees. Jane and Eric have only just returned from their own bike trip a few days ago. We share bicycle stories and photos and catch up on news – they are good friends of Sheila. Eric makes popcorn and cooks dinner and I then sleep on the sofa.

In the morning, I go for a walk with Jane. She is an excellent guide, pointing out items of interest, on every scale: mountains, islands, knots in trees, tree bark, mossy banks, clumps of grass, birds – nothing escapes notice. Vultures fly overhead and we lie on our backs on a bed of thick green moss pretending to be dead. The birds are not fooled.

Jane leading the way.

Jane leading the way.

Oak tree at the top of the hill.

Oak tree at the top of the hill, looking out over the Gulf Islands.

Douglas fir cones.

Douglas fir cones.

A spider's web.

A spider's web.

Moss, like an animal's pelt.

Moss, like an animal's pelt.

A tree that seems related to a eucalypt, to me.

A tree that seems related to a eucalypt, to me.

Red bark.

Red bark.

A protrubence.

A protuberance.

Turkey vulture overhead.

Turkey vulture overhead.

In the afternoon, we go for a swim in a small lake near the house and pick buckets of blackberries. The berries are amazingly prolific this year.

Prolific berries.

Prolific berries.

A damselfly, so motionless we thought it might be dead until it suddenly took flight.

A damselfly by the lake. It was so motionless we thought it might be dead until it suddenly took flight.

Jane picking blackberries.

Jane, picking blackberries.

It rains all night. I enjoy the sound of the raindrops on the roof from my warm bed on the couch and I am not inspired to leave, as planned, in the morning when the torrent has not yet ceased. I decide to devote the day to writing an article instead. While I write Jane makes jam with the frozen blackberries left over from last year. In the afternoon we visit the local cheese maker and sample all their wares – soft goat cheese and a range of lucious olives.

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share

I sometimes fantasize about the little lectures I’d like to give some large vehicle drivers about sharing. Most people are pretty good; but those that aren’t are scary.

Share!

Share! Nice sentiment - I had the urge to draw happy smiley faces on the figures.

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another wet day

I don’t know left from right, north from south, east from west.

Leaving Sheila’s house on a wet Sunday morning to catch the 10AM ferry, I turn back onto the Main Rd and head in the wrong direction. Ignoring every last visual clue, which clearly informs me that I am going somewhere I have never been before, I continue riding in the pouring rain and it is only when I arrive at Pluto that I acknowledge that I am far from the centre of the known solar system.

The street signs on Lasqueti are idiosyncratic but, nonetheless, informative.

The street signs on Lasqueti are idiosyncratic but, nonetheless, informative.

On a pleasant day I might have stayed to explore Squitty Bay but, as the rain is relentless, I retrace my path to the other end of the island and arrive at the ferry terminal twenty minutes late for the 10 o’clock ferry and two and a half hours early for the 1 o’clock ferry.

A cafe next to the terminal looks inviting but the doors are firmly closed. I sit on the steps, soaking wet and cold, until 11AM when the establishment opens and make my way to a table in the corner where a heater sits under the table. I arrange myself strategically to make the most of the hot air and address myself to drying out.

I board the ferry fortified by excellent pancakes and soon arrive in French Creek where I discover that I am without a clear plan. I hit the road as rain cascades down again.

Late in the day I find myself on the south-side of Nanaimo soaking wet and miserable. In a car park where I am futilely looking for a public telephone to ring a Nanaimo contact that I haven’t forewarned of my arrival, I ask a women for if she knows where I might find one. She enquires where I am staying and on hearing that I don’t really know she doesn’t hesitate, even for a moment, before inviting me home to her house for dinner and a bed.

Chris and I talk late into the evening. People constantly tell me that I am brave for merely getting on my bike. When I hear Chris’ story I realise that I know nothing of bravery. She raised two boys in very difficult circumstances, tragically lost her youngest son in an accident seven years ago, when he was thirteen years old, and still manages to find time and energy to help a total stranger in need. I leave in the morning in awe of Chris’ strength of spirit and tenacity, her ability and will to survive.

Chris in Nanaimo.

Chris in Nanaimo.

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lasqueti

Lasqueti is an island that comes with quite a fearsome reputation. It is off the grid, has few services or formal commercial enterprises and no vehicle ferry. Some people inform me that Lasquetians don’t really welcome outsiders and others merely resort to silent disapproval when I had tell them of my destination. Seeking information about the ferry schedule from the Harbour Master at French Creek, he freely shares his decided opinions on the island and its inhabitants. So, by the time I find myself on the ferry, I am curious about how things are going to go despite a warm and unreserved email invitation from Sheila, a long-term Lasquetian and a friend of the people I met in Whitehorse.

I have had trouble, as I always do, with the public phone when trying to ring Sheila for directions and to let her know that I am impending. The beast had swallowed large quantities of quarters without result, as the ferry threatened to leave the wharf with my bicycle already loaded. A man organising his bundles of groceries on the boat lends me his mobile phone when he learns of my predicament.

Sheila gives me a long set of directions – clear enough – but I am without pen and paper to hand and so I recite them aloud, as she speaks, in order to remember them. The man and his girlfriend are paying attention and give their opinion when I get off the phone. They find a map somewhere on the ferry which they mark with some vague clues as to my presumed destination, potential camp sites and their address and present it to me with an invitation to visit them.

Getting off the ferry I am greeted by name by Sue, Sheila’s neighbour, who offers to take my bags, corrects the errors of the map and quickly produces a hand-drawn supplement. I set off through the forest on a good packed unmade road towards the south of the island.

Turning, finally, off the road onto a narrow track with a sign forbidding motor vehicles, but welcoming walkers, I come across a woman wielding an axe next to a pile of split logs and a wheel barrow.  Sheila greets me with the statement, “You travel light!” In my enthusiasm to arrive, I have sailed straight past Sue’s truck parked at the end of the track with my panniers still sitting in the tray. I backtrack and return laden and then we make our way to the house.

Sheila.

Sheila.

If I had to describe my dream house it would come very close to matching Sheila’s. It is a small wooden shingle structure sitting on the water’s edge. The decking, which extends over sea-water at high tide, is probably equal in area to the inside space. To the right of the back door, steps lead down to the sea, a bath tub is set into rocks to one side with a space underneath to light a fire to heat the bath-water. To the left of the house are boats, two kayaks and a slightly decrepit row boat and a series of small sheds – one for the wood pile, one for boat stuff and one closed.

Sheila's house.

Sheila's house.

Dishwashing view.

Dishwashing view.

We lunch from Sheila’s garden; fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and peppers, supplemented by crackers and cheese. Sheila then returns to the garden while I nap, first on the deck in the sun and then in the loft bed at my disposal.

Later in the afternoon, I go out in a kayak and paddle along the rugged shoreline, exploring hidden bays and coves for an hour or two. Clouds above like fish scales, lichen on the rocky cliffs making patterns like the stylised wave forms in oriental paintings.

In the middle of the night, thunder rolls and lightening cracks and Sheila gets up to move things inside off the decking but the morning dawns bright and clear.

I spend the day lazing around the house and in the afternoon we visit the garden and then tour the neighbourhood. Sheila’s daughter-in-law and grandson live close by and Sue and Peter, also. Sue and Peter are harvesting potatoes in their garden. Sue finds a perfect snake skin on the ground, abandoned as thoughtlessly as a piece of clothing of last year’s fashion.

We return to the house to cook pasta with pesto made from fresh basil and fennel stewed in olive oil. We discuss books, family, life.

Sheila harvesting fennel.

Sheila harvesting fennel.

In the morning the tide is out and I dig for clams on the exposed mud flats. The bay is home to a small commercial operation and so we use their gear to do our poaching. Sheila shows me how it is done; a small rake drags the clams unresisting from the mud. The creatures do not move at all so the amount skill and effort involved is small – especially compared to that required to collect pipis, clam’s ocean-going antipodean cousins with which I have previous experience and provide a far greater challenge, burrowing through sand with surprising speed and determination. Once they are in the bucket, however, the two are pretty similar.

Mudflats at lowtide.

Mudflats at lowtide.

Gathering shells for dinner.

Gathering shells for dinner.

Oysters are also plentiful and I gather a few even though mud oysters don’t have the same glamour as rock oysters. A bucket of seafood quickly gathered, I return to the house. We sprinkle oatmeal into the water with the idea that it will speed the clams’ digestion and encourage them to expel all grit before dinner. Unfortunately Sheila is going out in the evening so I can’t share them with her. In the meantime, she entertains me by reading aloud from Between Pacific Tides, a book on marine biology, a treatise on the sex life of oysters.

I spend a lazy afternoon in the garden collecting vegetables and herbs for dinner – tomatoes, a pepper, a few carrots, parsley, thyme – and picking blackberries.

Gathering vegetables and berries.

Gathering vegetables and berries.

When I return to the house the tide is in and I take the kayak out again, paddling in the opposite direction this time, past a series of small islands. A seal is playing in the distance and I paddle towards it but as I approach it disappears below the surface. I continue parallel to the shore line until a huff behind me alerts me to a seal, perhaps the same one, swimming in my wake – grey head bobbing in the water as it gazes after me. We regard each other curiously until the seal tires of it and sinks below the surface again.

I continue to the point in the gathering twilight. I can’t see the sun behind the clouds but I know it is descending as the surface of the water is darkening rapidly – smooth ripples making intricate patterns in grey, brown and fawn. I head back to the house and as I enter the bay, another seal is there to greet me, peering earnestly at me for a long moment and then submerging. I stop and float, bobbing gently in the twilight water trying to see the seal under the surface but it has disappeared without a trace.

After an evening swim, I steam the clams in a tomato sauce and eat them with freshly harvested potatoes.

Clams for dinner.

Clams for dinner.

It is the season of plenty on the island: harvest time – fruit and vegetables ripe and abundant, flowers still blooming in the gardens. The sun shines enough to provide power.

Sheila's garden.

Sheila's garden.

Beefsteak tomatoes.

Beefsteak tomatoes.

Onions.

Onions.

Squash.

Squash.

Pinto beans.

Pinto beans.

Pinto, black and orca beans.

Pinto, black and orca beans.

Abundance in the greenhouse.

Abundance in the greenhouse.

From mid-September through October things are not as easy for Sheila, the solar panels are starved of light and there is not yet enough water to spin the water wheel – and I guess when the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are all gone the garden seems less bountiful, too. Sheila’s larder is full of preserves and pickles but I imagine the winter can seem long.

Sheila’s house has no locks. She has lived on Lasqueti for thirty-five years. At first her house floated on the water – tethered here and there, in the places where she was able to – before she dragged it up onto the shore and fixed it to the ground, slowly adding a room on here and there.

Neighbourhood messages.

Neighbourhood messages.

I sit and watch the water.

Imagine thirty-five years of watching the tide rising and falling, watching the changing sky and the succession of the seasons, knowing the names of the trees and which birds will visit, day after day.

I wonder if I will ever be so part of anything. To watch a child grow, a grandchild grow, the garden grow.

CLAMS STEAMED IN TOMATO SAUCE

Ingredients:

  • tomatoes
  • olive oil
  • garlic
  • onion
  • parsley
  • oregano
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • salt

Chop garlic and onions and saute until transparent in olive oil. Add chopped tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper and cook down for a while. When the tomato sauce is ready add the cleaned clams. Close the pot with a tight fitting lid. Steam until the clams open, tossing or stirring from time to time. Serve with rice, pasta or bread.

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