Sea scallops (Pectin maximus) may be one of the finest creatures of the sea. They don’t just swim through the water, they clap themselves along, jumping with grace, singing in a tone that other mollusks can hear. They live in the sandy, rocky substrate all around the coast of northern France, thoroughly camouflaged in their gorgeous, pinkish ivory shells.
Symbol of Love and Welcome
Their shells inspire a warmth, confidence, and generosity in many throughout the world, for they are the symbol of the apostle James, who was martyred by King Herod in 44 A.D. It is said he converted the people of what is now Spain to Christianity and that his body was returned there to rest in Santiago de Compostela, the capitol of Galicia. But why is the scallop shell his symbol? Since antiquity, the scallop is the symbol for love, and for protection for within its two, thick shells lies a fragile bivalve. It is said that St. James wore a shell on his cap; today scallop shells are placed strategically along the roads and trails pilgrims take to reach Compostelle, and a house that has a scallop shell next to its door proclaims welcome to any pilgrim who cares to stop. Thus, the shellfish has come to be named after Saint James (Jacques, in French) and is called coquille St. Jacques.
Highly Protected Fishery
By any name, this mollusc is revered, the fishery highly regulated so that the small day boats who drag for them, or the divers who pluck them one at a time, work within strict parameters. On a good year the boats can fish for 45 minutes a day, in order to protect the population, and the fishery lasts from October 1 to May 15, not a minute longer. After mid-May, there isn’t a truly fresh French scallop to be found in the land.
Butter and Cream
Classically and because the scallop is a denizen of the north, it is often cooked in butter and served with cream, both of which enhance its inherent elegance. As the season progresses the scallop develops a bright orange “tongue” that wraps around the round muscle, which is actually an egg sac and a delicacy for many. It is sauteed along with the scallop and offers a delicious foil to the white muscle.
Get out of the Way
The best rule when cooking scallops is to get out of their way, let them speak for themselves. I always reserve several to slice thin and serve raw, with just a drizzle of brand new olive oil and a sprinkle of fleur de sel added right before serving. After that, simplest is best and my favorite way to prepare them is to sear them on each side, often in butter sometimes in olive oil, then season them with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a dusting of black pepper, more fleur de sel. They are just cooked, their texture is intact, their flavor so fresh and pure that you’ll close your eyes and mentally sing a hymn while you eat them.
As for accompaniments? Refer to our amazing, mashed potatoes which provide a perfect bed for scallops, our simple green salad does the same. And the scallop makes a perfect addition to the Easter table, sauteed at the last minute and served at warm room temperature.
If you live in a region where the singing scallop swims (Chlamys rubida, small cousin to (Pectin maximus), don’t hesitate one minute, to prepare them as you would their larger relatives. If frozen is what you find, make sure they’ve been “flash frozen” right out of their shells, the best method for preserving their innate integrity.