Peregrinations and Pilgrimages: Legendary Scallops

Scallops 1A long time ago, I read a novel about a young woman who made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The story captivated me, true.  But more than that, the legend of the scallops stayed with me, with its magical aura of place, embodying the enduring desire of people to journey on pilgrimage, eternally seeking.

The Codex Calixtinus (more HERE about this, also called Liber sancti Jacobi, Book of St. James), dating from 1160, illuminates the pilgrimage road in both France and Spain.

Catalonia, view from the Camino (Photo credit. C. Bertelsen)

Once I crossed a portion of the road to Compostela, in northern Spain near Puigcerda. I stood in awe of the craggy mountains stretching out before me like the toys of giants. And I thought how those monsters didn’t seem to faze the millions of people who walked (and climbed!) the Camino de Santiago, their souls no doubt heartier than mine. Or at least their desire for the transformational parts of pilgrimage stronger.

Every time I see scallops, however, I’m reminded of  the part of a legend that seems to be whitewashed.

You see, the St. James legend reflects the bloody history of Spain, for he is known as the Moor slayer, for his supposed help at the Battle of Clavijo and Reconquista, or recovery of Spain from Arab rule. Santiago Matamoros, in Spanish. (See artistic renditions of him HERE.)

Photo credit: Nick Thompson
Photo credit: Nick Thompson

At first glance, unlike saints, the lowly scallop hardly seems the sort of creature around which legends arise. No fire-breathing dragons they. Nevertheless, during the Middle Ages, fan-like scallop shells became a symbol of legend and pilgrimage. Pilgrims from all over the Christian world flocked to the shrine of St. James the Greater in northern Spain at Santiago de Compostela, their way marked by empty scallop shells.  Once they completed the pilgrimage, pilgrims wore a scallop shell on their cloaks. Why scallop shells?  St. James, according to folk legend, rescued a man from the sea. When the two struggled out of the churning water, scallop shells covered St. James and the drowning man. The man lived and, to celebrate that miracle and others, believers built a shrine over St. James’ tomb in the 9th century. And the legend grew as the pilgrims came and went with their scallop shells.

St. James the Greater by Tiepolo
St. James the Greater by Tiepolo

For eaters of scallops, it is not the shell that is important but rather the adductor muscle or “eye” of the scallop. The muscle develops because it enables the scallop to open and close its shell while propelling itself along the sea floor. “Eyes” can be as large as 2 inches across, as in the case of sea scallops. Or, as in the case of bay scallops, “eyes” are as small as l/4 inch in diameter. Look for firm scallops with the aroma of the sea, not an ammonia-rich pissoir. Excessive whiteness often indicates that scallops were soaked in a phosphate solution to whiten them and to add weight. Fresh scallops generally appear in the markets throughout the fall and winter. During the summer months you will find fresh Florida bay scallops. Scallops are also available frozen at all times.

Cooking scallops, whether fresh or frozen, is not at all time consuming. A hot oiled pan, a little salt and pepper, and a squirt of lemon is really all you need. Gone are the days when chefs recommended that scallops be boiled for an hour (!). Braising, sautéing, baking, deep-frying, grilling, steaming,  and broiling are all best done quickly at high heat to preserve the texture and taste of the delicate scallop.

Other shellfish associated with St. James include the crayfish-like santiaguiños, from the Rias Bajas of Galicia. A cross resembling that of St. James marks the head of these creatures.

Yet another example of the intertwining of history and food.

(A recent discussion on the ASFS (Association for the Study of Food and Society) listserv on culinary tourism as pilgrimage inspired me to re-examine food and the sacred. This post is the first in a series on food as reflected in the light of pilgrimage.)

Scallops in shell
Photo credit: Ryan Michael

Fried Scallops Galician Style
Serves 4

8 scallops, cleaned
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 T. flour
3 T. unsalted butter
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
½ t. fresh thyme leaves

Place the scallops in a glass baking dish. Sprinkle half of the lemon juice over the scallops. Turn them and leave to sit for 30 minutes in the refrigerator. Put the flour on another plate. Take the scallops out of the dish, place on a plate and add salt and pepper to taste. Then dredge the scallops in the flour. Heat the butter/oil over medium-high heat and fry scalloped for about 5 minutes on one side until light golden brown. Add the rest of the lemon juice, parsley, and thyme. Cook briefly, about 30 seconds. Serve immediately with salad greens.

For more about the “Camino,” take a look at The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook, by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson (2000).

© 2009, 2010 C. Bertelsen


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