This past Saturday my dear fellow foodie friend Melf had valiantly sheep-dogged 8 of us seafood fiends to check out the scallop festival in Rye on the East Sussex Coast.
Judging from the festival's website it didn't sound like there was going to be much fun and rowdy boardwalk activity like there tends to be at Whitstable's oyster festival in the summer. I suppose an English February doesn't lend much support to that kind of thing. Still, the mere prospect of scarfing sweet scallops freshly caught from local waters during their fattest time of year at non-London prices was enough to get 8 of us onto a 9.30am train to Ashford International, and then a replacement bus service to Rye after.
Above: I think Shobs is looking away because at this point I am ranting (too loudly) for the 5th time in 20 minutes that all of the UK's best seafood stocks gets sold overseas, leaving those who live here with lower quality AND expensive seafood. Rye, for example, sells 80% of its scallop haul to the French across the channel!
To make ourselves feel like we were not complete piggies, we got the obligatory sightseeing bit of the day done and out of the way first.
Here's our group amid the flying buttresses of the 900 year old Parish church of St Mary for proof. In the sodding wet no less.
Photo by Colin Yau
I love going down to the docks in any fishing town, to see the catch of the day in its rawest form. Here at Market Fisheries down by Simmons Quay, I watch (for the first time, it's occured to me) freshly caught scallops getting shucked.
As if I wasn't indignant enough about the situation of seafood in the UK, I almost tear up when the fishmonger tells me that he throws away the scallop frills.
"The fish will eat it. In the old days we would eat this," he tells me. "Asian people still do. It can be lovely pickled."
No shit. I bet the same marinade I use for Asian blood cockles would work a treat. Or a ceviche mix.
Note to self: I need to find a fishmonger who will sell me a bucket o unwanted scallop frills.
In the meantime, it's time to come out of the cold, and pint-up in a pub.
The pub at the Ypres Castle Inn -- like everywhere else in Rye this week, are offering a scallop-themed food menu. We can't resist nibbling on a couple of starters with our pints, even though lunch is an hour away.
The group take communion-size nibbles at these grilled scallops and crevette...
... and a plate of of scallop and parma pate; scallop, leek and creamy mash pie and a grilled scallop on mashed peas.
Really lovely fresh flavour across the board. Scallop pate and scallop bits in a pie were novel items for me. But being the indulgence that it is -- scallops were £20-23 per kg in Rye and that's half the price of London -- I find it difficult to give up that very primal pleasure of sinking your teeth into the sweet juicy cushion of a whole scallop.
Snacks and mulled cider done, and appetites still far from ruined, we trooped over to lunch at The Ship Inn.
I was highly amused by the kitschy "fatty of the world" that greets you as you enter the upstairs dining area.
Many of us start off with a shot of scallop gazpacho, garnished with a smoked prawn. I spot parsley, lime, onion, chili, tomato and.... tomatillo, my American foodie friend Si insists. A tasty sipper, but I feel like the delicate flavour of the scallop got bullied into oblivion by the thick gazpacho and also the briny smokiness of the prawn. Which in and of itself was very good, but hey it's not smoked prawn week, is it.
The scallop "tempura" was disappointing. As you can see, that's fish and chips rather than tempura batter. Again, for something as delicate as a scallop, this choice of batter blanketed the star of the show. Actual tempura batter would've been a much more subtle canvas. The sushi rice just tasted weird. Mushy and over vinegared. Overall, amateurish fusion gone wrong.
The scallops with squid ink pasta and chorizo looked great on the menu, and looked great on the plate. Unfortunately it all went wrong once you put it in your mouth. The grilled scallops on their own were lovely. But the rest of it tasted like bland, flat and watery, missing any real encounter with olive oil, garlic and salt.
The best thing about the dish was the chorizo, lamented Melf.
Those who opted for the scallops with cress salad with bacon, black pudding and mashed peas fared better. Each ingredient held its own, the mashed peas was lovely and fresh and light, and the addition of black pudding for me has come to signify a charming British take on surf and turf. (FYI, black pudding with raw oyster is a killer combination as well. Just sayin.)
We did another loop of the town on foot, and picked up scallops and other briny treats to take home to London with us. Without any boardwalk fanfare, we figured we were done for the day. But heck, since we're waiting for the train, might as well have a spot of tea at Fletcher's House.
People had an assortment of (very scrummy) scones and cakes, but I ordered what everyone else secretly wanted but were too embarrassed to order after lunch -- crab sandwiches!
The crab was fresh rather than tinned, at least. They had the odd bit of shell in the mix to prove it. But a touch watery, rather than firm and meaty specimens I've had elsewhere. Still, something to be had by the sea rather than in the bowels of the city.
Now dark, we trundled off back to London, entertained by one another's company (I hope) but not overly impressed with the festival. Maybe to do it properly you have to stay the night at one of the town's B&Bs and book into a posh tasting dinner and a daytime cooking class. Maybe next year. In the meantime, we were kept busy scheming about what to do with our kilo bags of scallops in our respective kitchens...
Ypres Castle Inn
Rye TN31 7HH
+44 1797 233 248
The Ship Inn
Rye TN31 7DB
+44 1797 222 233
2 Lion Street
Rye TN31 7LB
+44 1797 222 227