Sea scallops, besides being a delicious seasonal treat, come loaded with myth and metaphor, from the fertility symbol of antiquity (the shell symbolising the protective and nurturing principle, and inwardly, the “life-force slumbering within the Earth”, an emblem of the vulva) to the modern-day adoption of the scallop shell for less romantic purposes, such as the Shell Petroleum company.
The most endearing connection is the scallop’s association with St James/ Santiago/St Jacques. Those who have walked part, or all the camino, arriving in Santiago di Compostela in Galicia, will be familiar with the cockle shell carried on the end of their bastone or walking stick, to arrive at the Cathedral in Santiago for a blessing or mass. The scallop shell is the most ubiquitous tourist memento from Santiago di Compostela and probably has been since medieval times.
For the pre-Christian Celt, the scallop shell resembled the setting sun, which was the focus of Celtic rituals in Galicia. The camino route was a Celtic death journey westwards towards the setting sun, terminating at the Finisterra, the end of the world, on the Costa da Morte.
This all makes lots of sense really but then how did St James, Santiago, St Jacques, become associated with sea scallops?
The association can most likely be traced to the legend that the apostle once rescued a knight covered in scallops. An alternative version of the legend holds that while St. James’ remains were being transported to Galicia in Spain, the horse of a knight fell into the water, and emerged covered in the shells.
The Italians have three names for the tasty scallop, the most common being capesante, deriving from medieval times when priests used the shell to pour holy water onto the heads of those receiving baptism. The alternate names, conchiglia di San Giacomo (like the French coquilles Saint Jacques) and conchiglia del pellegrino simply meaning St James’ shell or the shell of the pilgrim.
The English derivation of scallop comes from the French, escalope, meaning ‘shell’, not so historically romantic.
Scallop season begins here in late July (mid winter) in the Bass Straight central district, around the cold and pristine waters off the east Coast of Victoria. The quota has increased this season, indicating that stocks are healthy, and usually runs till early December. Scallops from Lakes Entrance are in a class of their own, especially if you can get them as soon as they arrive in the fisherman’s co-op.
One of my favourite scallop dishes combines them with a super fine pasta such as capellini or tagliatelline egg pasta, with the scallops finely sliced and tossed with lots of garlic sauce and a hint of chilli.
Tagliatellini con Capesante. Fine egg pasta with scallops.
Ingredients for Two
- 200 g thin egg pasta (tagliatelline)
- 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
- two pinches dried chilli flakes
- your best olive oil, a generous glug
- 250 gr scallops, cleaned, sliced.
- dry white wine, around 1/4 glass.
- freshly ground black pepper
- finely chopped handful of Italian parsley.
- Cook the pasta in ample salted boiling water, according to packet instructions.
- Meanwhile, add olive oil to a large frying pan. When it is hot, quickly stir around the scallop slices. Don’t cook for more than one minute.
- Add garlic and chilli flakes, toss about, then add the wine, then finely ground black pepper. Toss again. If the pasta isn’t ready, remove the scallop sauce from the heat.
- Drain the pasta well. Add to the frying pan, folding through with the scallop sauce. Add the parsley then serve in heated bowls.
This song goes so nicely with scallop season and memories of Santiago de Compostela. Chove en Santiago by Luar na Lubre. When I first heard this song echoing down a rainy lane in Santiago de Compostela, I cried. Sung in Galician, with strong Celtic threads, it still overwhelms me.