Food & Drink

Spring Season is Running Out on Seattle’s Most Quintessential (and Rare) Seafood: the Singing Scallop

Jones Family Farms

Salmon, halibut, and oysters loom large as the stars of Seattle’s famous seafood-focused cuisine, but now Seattle’s prodigal bivalve returns from the past to claim its rightful place in the group: the singing scallop. Up to 3 inches across, striated with rose tones that give it its other common name -- pink scallop -- the shellfish once shined from the ice at Pike Place Market and headlined local menus. Then, 20 years ago, it vanished. And it will again (at least temporarily) when summer arrives, bringing with it warm temperatures and the accompanying dangers they pose to the scallops.

Jones Family Farms
Jones Family Farms

Singing scallops: The quintessential Northwest ingredient

“When I arrived in Seattle, they were the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” Chef Tamara Murphy of Terra Plata recalls of when she moved here in 1983. The only scallop available in-shell on the West Coast, its striking carapace is just the beginning. Inside, the entire scallop is edible -- rather than just the muscle, as with most varieties -- along with, at times, the rich and vibrantly orange roe sac.

In 1987, The New York Times told the story of the name, quoting a seafood broker who branded them “because they puff through the water with their shells moving, like they're singing.” The piece goes on to describe the scallops as less aggressively sweet than East Coast varieties, with an oyster-like brininess and a bit of nutty flavor. Nick Jones, the only shellfish farmer who currently distributes them, describes the taste as a “cascade of flavor.”

In the ‘90s, as chef of Campagne, Murphy served them fresh from the Market. “They were such a quintessential Northwest ingredient.” Now, she is thrilled to serve them again, describing the shellfish as delicate, interesting, and deeply flavorful. “People come here wanting to taste what makes the Northwest special,” she says, “This is it. A product so fresh and alive that no chef in their right mind would turn down cooking with it.”

People come here wanting to taste what makes the Northwest special. This is it.

The seven year fight to bring singing scallops back to the table

“Whatever happened to the pink scallop?” local food writer Sara Dickerman asked Nick Jones one fateful evening at the Willows Inn. It was 2010, and Jones, who runs a meat and shellfish farm on Lopez Island, didn’t have an answer. He’d only had the delicacy once before in the early aughts, when someone had brought him to a dock to demolish and he’d scraped a few off to snack on. He looked them up online and discovered an open fishery in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Unfortunately, when he called the state to find out more about serving them, the answer was something along the lines of “wait, that’s still open?!” and an emergency closure to the fishery was enacted since no one was legally allowed to harvest the scallops commercially.

The main reason for this: Various harvesting regulations set in place for health purposes made collecting the scallops illegal under the current rules -- mostly ones that applied to other intertidal bivalves in order to ensure proper handling and safe consumption. Thus began Jones’ seven-year fight with the bureaucracy to bring back what was once an icon of Northwest cuisine, a crusade that took so long one of the guys he was working with at the Department of Health retired before the battle ended.

As it turns out, the reason scallops faded from the culinary scene wasn’t exactly the law... it was because they’re hard to harvest. Really, really hard. But that only made Jones want them more. “There are days I wish we sold frozen shrimp,” he says, “because that would be easy.” But, much to his own chagrin, he “loves the weird stuff.”

The areas they harvest from are chillingly cold with dangerous currents that require brave, skilled divers.

Unlike so many of the overfished and rare delicacies of the seafood world, pink scallops grow abundantly. Jones estimates the “secret nation” thriving at the bottom of the salty waters in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Admiralty Inlet, and San Juan Islands could amount to 10s of millions of pounds of scallops. But they live deep in the water, in places rarely accessible to divers. Jones runs two boats with four divers to get them from the relatively shallower -- but still difficult to navigate -- depths of 60 to 120 feet. The areas they harvest from are chillingly cold with dangerous currents that require brave, skilled divers.

Once the scallops are brought to the farm, they’re held for two weeks in Jones’ own shellfish harvesting waters while they undergo a series of tests for red tide (a toxic algal bloom that can kill fish and make bivalves very dangerous, even deadly, to eat) and other pollutants. Then, three times a week, they’re packed into mesh bags and loaded into Jones’ truck to catch the 6:30am ferry off Lopez for delivery to Seattle restaurants.

Jones Family Farms
Jones Family Farms

Where to sample these delectable bivalves

The nature of scallops -- they don’t close their shells completely like oysters and clams -- means that they don’t retain water, thus the liquid they emit in cooking is more savory and intensely flavored than other bivalves. However, that also contributes to the short shelf-life due to drying out. Once out of the water, the scallops must be consumed within 48 hours, so the frequent deliveries keep them fresh for local chefs at restaurants like Eden Hill, Altura, and L’Oursin. A full list of restaurants and shops serving them is on the Jones Family Farms website.

While the scallop brings a powerful taste, it’s not the easiest product to work with, between the delicate flavors and the short shelf life. Jones looked for chefs that he knew would be willing to work with the peculiarities of the pink scallop. At Terra Plata, Murphy tries to keep the preparations simple to do justice to the complexity and spunk of the shellfish. One day she cooks them in a tomato and saffron broth and will garnish with wood sorrel, another in white wine with herbs and shallots, and other times flavoring them with her house-fermented black garlic. As summer approaches, she hopes to find a ceviche presentation that works well.

Once out of the water, the scallops must be consumed within 48 hours.

But that impending season change also spells trouble for singing scallop season: Warm temperatures bring the dangerous red tide to the scallops, and the fishery will close until the bivalves are safe again. Right now, you can still find Jones delivering singing scallops to chefs all around, but it’d be wise to act fast. Depending on the weather, this cherished icon of Northwest cuisine could disappear again in the next few weeks, and not return until the cool weather does in the fall.

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Naomi Tomky is an award-winning freelance food and travel writer with a passion for strange sea creatures. Follow her edible adventures on Twitter @Gastrognome and on Instagram @the_gastrognome.