The image of the scallop shell is steeped in history and heraldry, but since my beloved loves scallops themselves, I recently made her the traditional shellfish in a white wine sauce, known as Coquille St. Jacques, without worrying about any of the deeper meanings.
With the outer convex side of the shell facing the viewer, the scallop shell is the traditional emblem of St. James the Great, said to be buried on the rugged west coast of Spain in Galicia. This is not far from where Napoleon’s troops drove the ragged British redcoats into the sea at Corruna, one of the worst defeats of the Peninsular Campaign, before Wellington arrived, took charge and chased the French all the way to their Waterloo six years later. The apostle’s shrine at Santiago de Compostela is the destination for the devotional route known as the Way of St. James. Santiago, of course, is the Spanish for St. James, but the meaning of compostela is confused. Some believe it means ‘field of stars’ but the more likely meaning is ‘burial ground’ (Latin: composita tella). Christian pilgrims in mediaeval times would collect a scallop shell while at Compostela to prove they had made the journey.
In Galician cuisine, apparently, scallops are baked with breadcrumbs, ham and onions, although I have not been there and have not tried this dish. In French, the shellfish itself is called coquille St. Jacques, the latter being French for St. James. In German they are Jakobsmuscheln, literally ‘James’s shellfish.’ We must have purloined the name of the shellfish for the dish itself.
The scallop shell symbol found its way into heraldry as a badge of those who had been on the pilgrimage to Compostela, although later it became a symbol of pilgrimage in general. The Churchill (Winston) and Spencer (Diana) families’ coats of arms include a scallop, as well as both of Diana’s sons Prince William and Prince Harry’s personal coats of arms. At Aldeburgh, Suffolk, near where Benjamin Britten lived, artist Maggi Hambling erected a tribute to the British composer in 2003. The four-metre-high steel scallop shell is sited on the beach. However, the shell should be viewed from the concave side, when it represents the feminine image of Venus. I leave it to you to decode Hambling’s meaning.
Almost none of this information was known to me when I started looking for a good recipe for Coquille St. Jacques. Astoundingly, it does not appear in my bible of French cuisine, Larousse Gastronomique, so perhaps it is not really a French dish. Vichyssoise and Caesar salad are two concoctions assumed to be French but actually American in origin. However, my other go-to authority Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, reveals its origin, when she presents ‘Scallops gratinéed with wine, garlic and herbs, à la provençale.’ Her version has bay leaf and thyme, which seem to me to be too strongly flavoured for the delicate scallop. I keep looking and eventually make my own recipe after checking out half a dozen other offerings. I believe it hews closely to the remembered flavours of my youth.
I say youth, for I haven’t dared eat scallops for many years, since I discovered an allergy to shellfish (not including oysters, strangely). After flying business class across the Atlantic from Toronto to Heathrow, when I dined well on scallops, I found my thumb had swollen to twice its size (and very painfully, too) by the end of the journey. As soon as I checked into my Knightsbridge hotel (The Levin, now The Capital Townhouse, in case you are interested), I demanded a large whisky and a large glass of ice. ‘Would sir like the whisky over the ice?’ asked the bar tender. ‘No! Sir wants the ice for his thumb,’ I cried and plunged the offending digit into the cooling cubes. I have not touched them since. So, when I made Coquille St. Jacques as a birthday treat for her recently (in Coronavirus lockdown, we were clearly not going out to a fancy restaurant, as we would normally have done), I reserved some of the sauce and mashed potatoes and made myself a very tasty replacement with crispy bacon. Almost Galician, in fact.
This recipe will also be found in my soon to be published eBook Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook, which I am deeply into editing during the lockdown.
COQUILLE ST. JACQUES
- 6 medium sized white potatoes
- 2 TBSP unsalted butter
- 2 TBSP thick cream (35 per cent whipping cream)
- Sea salt and fresh ground pepper
- 8 small to medium scallops
- 6 shallots, chopped finely
- 2 TBSP unsalted butter
- 4 TBSP EVOO
- 2 TBSP fine white sauce flour
- ½ cup (125 mL) whole milk
- ¼ cup (60 mL) thick cream (35 per cent whipping cream)
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- 1 cup (100 g) grated Gruyère cheese (or any good melting cheese)
- Sea salt and fresh ground pepper
- Small bunch parsley, well rinsed and chopped
Step by step: pan fried scallops in a gratinée dish, add sauce, add rosettes of mash, add grated cheese, into the oven
Preparation and cooking
- Peel and chop the potatoes into quarters and bring to the boil in well-salted water. Boil for 15 mins or until tender. Drain well in a colander, then return to the pot with the butter and cream and salt and pepper to taste. Mash thoroughly. TIP: under no circumstances use a mixer or blender, which turns the potatoes into a gluey mess, by breaking down the starches too much. Set aside to cool.
- In a pot heat butter and an equal amount of olive oil. TIP: the oil stops the butter from burning. Add the chopped shallots and cook over medium to low heat until they are transparent. You do not want them to brown or fry. Add the flour and stir in well until they shallots are coated. The flour will fry in the fat and make the start of a traditional Add the milk and stir in until the mixture has blended well and starts to thicken into a sauce. Add the cream and stir in. Cook for a further 2 mins. Finally, stir in the white wine and cook while most of the alcohol evaporates, perhaps another 2 to 3 mins. Set aside.
- In a heavy pan, bring a small amount of olive oil to high heat. Wash and dry the scallops. Using tongs, gently drop them into the hot oil, frying on each side for no more than a minute each, so they turn a lovely golden crispy brown.
- Set two scallops into each of either authentic washed and dried scallop shells, or simple gratinée dishes. Spoon the sauce equally on top, dividing it into four portions. Fill a piping bag equipped with a large star nozzle, with mashed potatoes and surround the scallops with rosettes of potatoes. Hold the bag vertically and squeeze a dollop of potato out of the bag. If you check the photo, you will find rosettes easy to make with very little practice. Failing a piping bag, just cut the corner off a plastic bag. The rosettes won’t look as good but they’ll taste identical. Grate the cheese and sprinkle generously on top of the sauce. At this stage the dish can be covered and kept in the fridge until ready to cook.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C / 350° Set the dishes on a tray, to prevent spilling, and place them in the centre of the oven to bake for about 10 to 15 mins, until bubbling. If necessary, broil for the last 3 mins to give a better browning.
- Garnish with a sprinkle of chopped parsley and serve at once. TIP: This is often presented as an appetiser or a light lunch dish but can be an excellent main course if you add some steamed, buttered broccolini or asparagus spears. In that case you might want to double up on the scallops or use large ones.
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This is Nigel’s 275th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. Here is the link to Market to Table: The Cookbook, a bargain at $11.50. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, even better priced at $9.99 or £9.99.
Categories: Simply food
Love the story and the recipe. Hope to try it as soon as we can get some fresh scallops.
The St Lawrence Market is open for business and Seafront Fish Market have some excellent scallops in all sizes.
This is a most inspiring piece, Nigel and the product produced looks marvellous. But, the big question is, what wine did you serve your beloved with it! A nicely chilled Corton-Charlemagne or something similar I hope. Cheers, Jim
We have become enamoured of Portuguese vinho verde, which is slightly petillant, from Quinta de Aveleda, as part of our Iberian peninsular explorations.
I also discovered that Seafront Fish Market sell packs of scallop shells, for greater authenticity.