Scallops have had a bad press, but, when sustainably fished, there is no finer seafood. Do you cook the gastropub favourite at home? Botticelli’s Venus rose from the shell of one, Princess Diana had one on her coat of arms and Maggi Hambling’s four-metre-high steel sculpture dominates the beach at Aldeburgh. Scallops are as much a part of our culture as our cuisine – hence, later this week, the cobbled streets of Rye, a small fishing town in East Sussex, will be teaming with men rushing wheelbarrows of scallops from the harbour to the local pub, to be sauteed and served in their shells. This isn’t a return to greener methods of transportation, but part of Rye’s now annual scallop festival, which this year runs from 15-23 February.
“The idea is to promote one of the key foods that we have right on our doorstep,” says Paul Webbe, who runs Webbe’s restaurants and cooking school. “Our bay is full of them from late November until mid-April and they are enormously popular – because they’re delicious, and people also want to support a major local industry in a small community.”
This particular mollusc has always been popular. Archaeological evidence suggests humans have been eating them since the dawn of time. Certainly the Greeks and Romans enjoyed them. The philosopher Xenocrates recommended them grilled and served with vinegar and silphium, a seasoning popular in antiquity. Fast-forward a few hundred years, and medieval pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela carried the shell to use as a plate (its size ensured their requests for sustenance were not too demanding). Nowadays they are on the starter menu of every second gastropub and the main menu almost everywhere else.
“The scallop is fantastically versatile,” says Webbe. “It can be served raw and thinly sliced, marinated with spices as a ceviche; seared or pan-fried; on its own or as an accompaniment to other fish or meat.” It is also simple to cook at home, perhaps one of the easiest seafoods with which to impress. But this year, perhaps more than ever, scallops need the support the Rye festival gives them. They have come in for a lot of bad press. There have been reports of slaves being used aboard the big trawlers that fish for them in the North Sea.
Then there is the damage caused to the seabed by the dredging equipment that is too often used to catch them (and the wasted bycatch). Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is urging us all to seek out more sustainable sources as part of his Fish Fight campaign. His restaurants use only scallops that have been hand-dived – not least, says head chef Gill Meller, because the divers that catch them (Portland Shellfish and West Country Catch) bring them in fast, so they taste better.
“When very fresh they have a unique texture, which is silky and creamy, and a subtle, sweet flavour,” he says. “But the sweetness begins to diminish within hours of coming out of the water and the texture is entirely spoiled by freezing.” At the other end of the country, the Ethical Shellfish Company hand-dives for scallops around the Isle of Mull, while in between, small teams of divers have begun to emerge in response to growing concerns about the environmental impact of scallop-fishing.
But they cannot meet the demand for supply, says Claire Pescod from the Marine Stewardship Council. “If a fish is MSC-certified, you know it has been sustainably sourced, even if not hand-picked,” says Pescod. “But not every fishery will apply for accreditation, so sometimes you just need to find out a bit more about how they’ve been caught.”
In Rye, scallops are fished using small boats with limited dredges that cause less damage to the seabed than bigger boats, and they are fished only in season for a few days at a time. If we’re careful about where they come from, we should be enjoying scallops for another couple of thousand years at least. From tartar to poached, they lend themselves to new combinations and flavours, whether it’s Mediterranean-style with chorizo or seared and served with chilli, nam pla and lime juice, along the lines of those dished up by the Thai chain Giggling Squid. There are plenty of ideas around.
But the real beauty of scallops is that simplicity is key. Their flavor is almost enough on its own, and they come with a naturally sculpted serving dish – a food deserving of celebration.