"You can serve them steamed, fried, roasted, raw, poached, marinated – you can get ten different dishes from ten different scallops cooked in seven different ways.
“February is an exciting month – almost more exciting in a culinary way than summer.”
So says Matthew Drinkwater, head chef of Webbe’s At The Fish Cafe, in Rye, one of 29 restaurants, cafes and hotels across the town taking part in this year’s Rye Bay Scallop Week.
And there is no denying the importance of the festival to the town, in what would otherwise be a quiet period.
“It is probably our busiest week of the year,” says Drinkwater. “Last year we sold more than 5,000 scallops in a week.”
Webbe’s three cookery schools and two cooking demonstrations are already booked solid. The Tower Street cafe also has its own special scallop tasting menu running through the week, featuring Drinkwater’s own favourite pan-fried scallops with caramelised apple, Staunton’s black pudding and cider jus.
“This year it feels like people are putting in the extra effort,” says Rye Bay Scallop Week organiser Oliver Campion, who has taken the reins of the annual festival after his success with 2012’s Wild Boar Festival.
“This year is the first time we’ve had Marino’s Fish Bar [in The Mint, Rye] offering five deep-fried scallops and chips – stripping away any pretentiousness we might have about scallops!”
As with Wild Boar Week, Campion wanted to make the event more than just about the food. Pubs and restaurants in and around Rye will also host live music, scallop-themed quizzes and special events during the week.
The Old Dairy Brewery, in Rolvenden, near Cranbrook, Kent, has created a special Scallop Top beer which will be on sale across Rye, and has attracted orders from as far afield as Folkestone.
Alongside the wheelbarrow races, tastings and even bingo there is a serious side to the festival.
Rye Bay scallops were being ordered for the King’s table as far back as Charles I’s reign. And the fishermen going out in the boats still suffer hardship as they dredge the beds only a few miles out from land.
“They should be the ones recognised for their hard endeavour,” says John Botterell, who shucks, packages and sells scallops caught by the Rye fleet.
“They are small family businesses. It’s back-breaking work, and it’s very hard on the boats which are mainly steel as opposed to fibreglass.”
With scallop stocks across the world getting depleted through over-fishing, Rye fishermen have their own methods of making sure the small beds remain sustainable.
“They all have a certain amount of self-interest in keeping the stocks going,” says Botterrell. “These are small boats – they can’t go 100 miles down the coast as the bigger boats do.
“There is an agreement that they only fish through the winter months, from December to May. The rest of the year they leave them voluntarily.
“There is a large volume of water going through a narrow part of the Channel, meaning the scallops have constant nutrient-rich water to help them grow to a better size. Because they are being left alone for a large part of the year they have the ability to go through reproduction without being disturbed.”
The small 10m-long boats also mean the fishermen are limited by the number of dredges they can do, although it also means they can get to beds that the bigger boats – prevented from fishing within eight miles of the British coast – could never reach.
“Some of the beds are only the size of two tennis courts,” says Botterell. “Each boat has its favourite area. Once the amount of scallops coming off the boat falls below a certain level of mature scallops, they leave it alone and move on.
“If you ever ask a fisherman anything about where he fishes he becomes cagey – if they become public knowledge he will lose his spot!”
Botterell, who is hosting his own cooking demonstration at Rye Farmers’ Market (see the highlights below), generally sells his stock within the local area, and directly to customers at farmers’ markets.
“We pack them so they are nice and clean into tubs of half a kilo or a kilo for the retail market, shops and restaurants,” he says.
“They are all shucked and packaged within 24 hours of them being landed – whereas the bigger boats will hold onto their catch for four or five days in a refrigerated hold.”
Rye Bay Scallop Week takes place across Rye from Saturday, February 2, to Sunday, February 10. For the full programme, menus, recipes and list of participating restaurants, visit www.scallop.org.uk