Scallops: it’s worth navigating choppy ethical waters to serve one of the marine world’s greatest delicacies

Listen carefully and you’ll hear the noise of hundreds of angry fisherman sharpening their hooks, or more accurately their dredging gears, as their industry endures yet another round of bad publicity. Most of their ire will be directed at high profile celebrity chef and restaurateur Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, who last month launched a full scale attack on the majority of the scallop industry.

Channel 4’s Save Our Seas asserted that dredging boats dragging gears across the seabed to dislodge scallops and other marine life lacks discrimination and is causing irreparable damage to the marine ecosystem. Fearnley Whittingstall claims the only truly sustainable option is hand dived scallops, which are far more expensive and represent a comparatively tiny amount of total production. Unsurprisingly, the industry largely disputes this claim, arguing that dredging can be sustainable in areas where the sea floor is constantly being ploughed up by natural tides.

Mixed sustainability messages

But it’s not just the fishermen that are railing against TV’s take on the issue. Seafood expert and restaurateur Mitch Tonks is dismayed at the way dredging has been portrayed. “I get my scallops from Brixham Market; they are dredge caught by the local fleet. When you see Hugh diving on a rocky reef, that’s not quite the full picture: the majority of scallops are harvested from sandy bottoms. It’s heavy impact fishing, but it’s done in a contained area. Besides, dredging is the only way to offer scallops on a meaningful scale.” There are conflicting messages from the big fishing organisations too. The Marine Conservation Society says that nothing but hand harvested will do, but the Marine Stewardship Council accredits a number of dredged scallop fisheries, further muddying the waters for chefs.

All varieties of scallop offer two types of meat in one shell: the main deal is the tasty adductor muscle, but the orange roe (or coral) is also edible. Opinions differ on whether the latter has any real culinary value. At the top end, few serve scallops with the roe attached, but a lot of chefs will dry the roes, blitz them and use as a garnish.
Chefs buying in live scallops need to consider labour implications as shucking them is a notoriously time consuming enterprise. As such, fresh are rarely sighted outside the starter section of the menu.

King scallop sizes vary significantly and chefs tend to specify small, medium or large. As with most shellfish, the larger the specimen the more expensive by weight because the meat to shell ratio tends to be higher. The smaller queen scallops (aka queenies) tend to be a more consistent size.

Tubs of prepared scallops are also available and tend to arrive frozen. ‘Wet packed’ scallops, as they are called, are usually treated with sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP), which causes the scallops to absorb moisture prior to the freezing process, thereby getting the producer a better price per unit of weight. Tubs are far cheaper than live and are favoured by larger kitchens. Though undeniably more convenient, they can’t compete with fresh on eating quality.

Favoured cooking methods

The standard method for cooking the king scallop in the UK is pan frying. While some cut larger scallops in half to improve plate coverage, most elect to fry whole. The sweet meat caramelises beautifully, creating textural and flavour contrasts between the interior and exterior. Fernando Stovell, chef patron at the recently opened Stovell’s in Chobham, Surrey, swears by his unconventional method of starting scallops in the pan, but finishing under a grill.

“When you shuck your scallop meat, one side will be round [the cut side] and the other will be flat. If you cook with the round side down you risk uneven results, so we start with the flat side down before putting the pan under the salamander. When the round side is coloured, we add a little butter and lemon juice to create a glaze. The whole process barely takes three minutes.”

Scallops: Essential facts

* Key varieties: The two main varieties in the UK are the larger king and the diminutive queen scallop. The latter are present in great quantities around the Isle of Man and are often known as Manx Queenies.

* Buying advice: Live scallops should arrive closed and in good condition, excessive dirt and broken shells are a bad sign. Be suspicious of an overtly fishy odour a clean ozone smell is preferable.

* Dishes: Coquilles St Jacques Parisienne, scallops with blackbean sauce, scallops beurre blanc, ceviche.

* Preparation: To shuck, prise the shell open with a blunt knife. Tilt the knife upwards so it doesn’t cut the meat and release the scallop from the flat side of the shell. Discard the flat side; run a spoon down the back of the shell to remove the scallop. Ease off the skirt. Rinse briefly; scallops are hygroscopic, if left in water they will become bloated and tasteless.

* Key flavour matches: Butter, lemon, cured pork preparations (especially bacon and chorizo), blood based sausages, hazelnuts, capers, leeks, cauliflower, soy sauce, spring onions.

* Bet you didn’t know: Such is the recognisability of a certain energy giant’s scallop inspired logo, in Thailand scallops are now referred to as hoy shell rather than the traditional hoy phat.

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