So here I am in San Francisco waiting for Dungeness crab season to start tomorrow, but I really wish I was out east, in Nantucket to be precise.
I would like to call myself a scalloper… HA! I have been scalloping exactly twice on what were sure to be the two nicest and warmest days of the season, so although I do appreciate the grueling nature of the industry there is no way I really understand the extent of the cold days with freezing icy wind gusting as the loyal scallopers trudge away to get scallops on your table.
My mother loves scallops, but as a kid I was never a fan, I found them chewy and mostly flavorless. Most of the time you see scallops in a restaurant they are breaded, overcooked and way too big. I was not intrigued by them until I worked at Rubicon and Jardiniere with Traci Des Jardins. Des Jardins is famous for her truffled scallop dish, a heap of creamy and buttery mashed potatoes in the center, that relies on some amazingly flavorful tubers, surrounded in a delicate yet hauntingly flavorful truffle nage and finally garnished with a ring of golden seared scallops. A “nage” by the way means “in the swim” how amazingly appropriate right? Anyway the dish was and is absolutely delicious. Another thing I learned about scallops around the same time was the term day boat, meaning that the boats harvesting the scallops return each day to port to offload them. It’s a pretty important distinction as scallops do not live as long as clams or other shellfish once caught. They must be shucked while live and either kept on ice of flash frozen which of course changes their delicate texture. Having quality scallops as an ingredient of course makes the dish that much better.
Fast forward to last year, December 2011, when I had the opportunity to scallop with my friend Bruce, a commercial scalloper on Nantucket! Nantucket Bay Scallops are famous internationally due to their very delicate texture and pure sweet flavor. I find other scallops to be more neutral in flavor and with less of that fresh salty tang of the ocean. With wine we talk about terroir, but oyster and shellfish purveyors and writer have now coined the word (not sure who to attribute it to, but it’s clever!) “merroir” meaning that oysters, clams and of course scallops taste distinctly different depending on where they originate. Just like wine the maritime “weather” and climate have a lot to do with how the shellfish grows, the microorganisms, sea life and micro-elements and minerals in the water also affect the flavor in ways hard to define. Since bivalves filter water to eat they are conduits of flavor even more than grapevines. They really are made of the fine mixture of what the sea diffuses into them more than any creature I can think of! As a result of the unique characteristics of Nantucket, Nantucket Bay Scallops garner a higher price per pound due to the limited supply. The price varies annually but this year’s season opened paying scallopers $10/lb with retail prices ranging from $14-$17.95.
Nantucket regulates scallop fishing in order to preserve the next year’s harvest. Many consumers actually scallop with their families but there are strict guidelines as to days allowed, quantities and permits are needed. Also every scallop harvested either commercially or recreationally must have a raised annual growth ring to show it is one year minimum in age or fit a size requirement. This ensures a healthy population to spawn for the next season. Recreational scalloping starts October 1 annually. During the season you will see entire families in their waders working the shallows with inter tubes that suspend wire baskets, raking in up to a bushel a week. The commercial season begins November 1 and runs until March 31. Scallopers can harvest up to five cases per day, which can bring in about $400 for that type of haul. That said, the scallop season is what many commercial scallopers rely on as their only source of winter income, and there are days that are easy and scallops are plentiful, but there are days that are rough both in terms of weather and the catch.
Our day began very early as I was picked up before dawn to get out on the water. It was unseasonably warm for December 2, which was also the first day of the annual Christmas Stroll. We headed out in a truck with a big rusted out flatbed, no stranger to seawater. I was outfitted in Grunden’s orange pants and some waterproof boots, a heavy sweater and Carhaart jacket, orange waterproof slicker, glove liners and large orange gloves and a warm hat as we set off from Nantucket harbor just before dawn. Scallopers have to wait until 6:30am to start scalloping, so most like to be at the area they plan to dredge by then. The cue to start is the horn of the first Steamship ferry as it leaves Nantucket for Hyannis at 6:30am. The whistle blew and we started working. The process is relatively simple but time consuming and takes a good deal of strength. The dredges are released behind the boat in groups so as not to get tangled up and the boat moves slowly along as these weighted nets scrape the bottom of the harbor. When it seems enough time has passed they are cranked up onto a sorting table and emptied of hopefully scallops. When the first heaping dredge full of the sea came up and was dumped on the table it included everything imaginable, sea stars, eelgrass, rocks, clams, fish, mud all writhing around and soaking wet. And the most amazing thing, as the first haul was emptied onto the sorting area, a heap of scallops chattered away as they snapped open and shut repeatedly in the early light of dawn. It was my job to help sort through the mess and retrieve the scallops, all at the same time while checking to be sure they had the growth ring and were old enough. I had trouble believing that normally Bruce does all of this solo, it’s a lot of work, and quite honestly having me there was more of a hindrance than help as he had to coach me quite a bit. “Is this one old enough? How about this one?”, I’d say to which he’d reply, “Make a decision!” Master of efficiency, he commented that I should never have to touch one scallop twice, it either goes in the basket or over the side. We took a pause after we had reset the dredges and he shucked one for me. He turned the scallop smooth side down. The smooth side is the one normally resting on the bottom on the sand, so it’s clean of algae or muck. Grabbing the scallop knife from in between some of the worn wooden boards on the boat, he stuck the scallop knife between the hinges of the shells, slipped the knife all the way around while pressing it up on the top of the shell to unhinge the muscle as cleanly as possible, popped up the shell and discarded the ring of eyes around the edge, scraped off the internal organs and finally removed the bottom part of the muscle. It was amazingly fresh and delicious, almost magical. It could not have been a more perfect bite and moment.
We scalloped until about 9:30 which was not that long considering we were able to fill our 5 permitted boxes. We headed back to the dock, unloaded and then headed to get a coffee and deliver the scallops to Nantucket Seafoods. They have a small market but generally the scallops we harvested would be shucked that day and sent next day air to restaurants around the country. Part of our batch was actually going to San Francisco! I got home exhausted, took a nap, showered and headed into town for the festivities of Christmas Stroll. The streets were aglow with lighted trees and every store was decked out for the holidays. Scallop shell lights were hung all over the town and strands of them were for sale for about $100-$199 a strand! I sat down at a wonderful upscale restaurant called The Pearl to get some dinner in the midst of a boisterous crowd of adults on a Santa crawl wearing hideous holiday sweaters. On the menu there was a local Nantucket bay scallop trio of ceviche/crudo. Remembering my first sweet taste of scallop that morning, I was mesmerized. These could very well be the same scallops that Bruce and I had harvested just a few hours ago! So I had to order them although they price made me cringe with a pang of guilt. They arrived and had been handled in the most delicate way, taking care in all three preparations not to overshadow their texture or flavor. I savored every morsel of what at most must have been four or five good sized scallops. As I sat there fully engaged with the meal, I was struck by my incredible day, full circle from harvesting scallops that morning to sitting here with my glass of Gruner Veltliner and enjoying these delightful morsels in elegance. $10 a pound and a lot of exhausting work for Bruce who was just at the beginning of a long and arduous winter of scalloping with many cold days ahead. And here I was savoring a small dish costing if I recall correctly about $22-25, but crafted with the utmost respect and care. I could not have been more thankful to enjoy both sides of the spectrum. After I was warm with wine and my palate sated by scallops and other delicacies, I asked for the check. After all my concern about the money I was spending after on my first humbling day harvesting scallops, I was told that some revelers I had befriended (not in ugly sweaters) had secretly paid for my entire meal and had already left. So this Thanksgiving I will be toasting the fisherman and farmers who work tirelessly to bring food to our tables, all of those chefs and cooks who respectfully prepare those ingredients to give us great pleasure, and all of those who understand and remind me when I least expect it, that every moment of life is a gift.
To order Nantucket Bay Scallops http://nantucketseafood.net/
More info on scallops http://www.nantuckettodayonline.com/novdec09/scallops.html
What to drink with scallops? With lighter preparations scallops are great with crisp whites. I would love something like a Gruner Veltliner from Austria for a scallop crudo or ceviche, or a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc if you are making something spicy or citrusy. If the scallops are caramelized with a slightly sweet preparation try an off dry aromatic white like the Schlossgut Diel Riesling Classic from the Nahe in Germany. The great thing is with richer preparations (think mushrooms, truffle, red wine beurre rouge, etc, you can even pair scallops with Pinot Noir. I am hoping to find some good options this Friday at Farallon’s Pinot Fest! The consumer tasting is Saturday for tickets and information http://www.farallonrestaurant.com/pinotfest.html