12 years ago I launched my business with an abundance of enthusiasm, a broad, deep background in fisheries but very little first-hand knowledge of "the seafood business", at least once the seafood left the boat.
I've learned a lot in the past 12 years, but some things still perplex me:
- Why do so many chefs and consumers in New York City complain about lack of access to top-quality seafood?
- Why are Nantucket and Peconic Bay Scallops so popular? I've tried them and they're good, but not insanely so. And their size makes their popularity particularly confusing: I've tried for years to get people to realize bigger is NOT better when it comes to scallops, but customers still ask for the largest scallops possible. So why will these same discerning food lovers shell out up to $80 per pound for teeny-tiny Nantucket Bay Scallops. What gives?
- Why do people keep asking for "diver scallops" when the vast majority of scallops labeled "diver scallops" are just fraudulently labeled drag-caught scallops?
- Why on earth would people import scallops from Hokkaido Japan when we have such delicious scallops right here in the US?
These perplexing situations have something in common: they all exist, at least in part, thanks to the industrial scale of traditional US seafood distribution, compounded by pervasive fraud. I've since found out it's also a problem in other countries too, but we'll stick to the US for now. So let's dive in (pun intended):
The first thing to know is that a dayboat scallop is different from a trip boat scallop. Trip boats get their name because they're at sea for long trips, generally 6-8 days, sometimes longer. As they're caught, scallops are stored in cloth bags buried in ice, and when the ice melts the scallops absorb it like little sponges. The fishermen don't mind this since they're paid by the pound. At the end of the trip, these boats offload thousands of pounds of scallops that have been absorbing water for 1-7 days depending on when they were caught. This extra water adds weight and dilutes flavor. When these scallops enter the traditional seafood distribution chain, each link, and there are often many, has the opportunity and incentive to add water or worse.
Since the vast majority (92-95%) of sea scallops are harvested this way, you can understand why other kinds of scallops would seem pretty luxurious by comparison. We're working up to Maine Dayboat Scallops, of course, but we'll start with a few others with a much higher profile:
Let's start with bay scallops (Argopecten irradians): OK, they're good. They're sweet and mild. But I'd argue it's not that the waters they're from or the species itself that's superior: it's the fact that they're harvested in small quantities on small boats, are handled with care and are generally NOT subjected to the multi-step chain of traditional seafood distribution. An argument could be made that Nantucket Bay Scallops are the original dayboat scallop. People recognize them as a premium gourmet product and they treat them with the care and respect they deserve. Your Nantucket Bay Scallop was harvested by a small boat fisherman, brought to shore quickly, almost certainly has a natural moisture content and is not 10 days old. So yes, they're good. But although I'm admittedly not unbiased, I'd say they're no better than Maine Dayboat Scallops.
So what about diver scallops? I'd encourage you to read The Facts and Fictions of Diver Scallops for more detail, but the relevant bits here are that diver scallops were introduced to top chefs in the 1990's by Rod Mitchell of Browne Trading. He purchased scallops hand-harvested by divers in Maine's inshore waters. These, too were harvested in small quantities, were not soaked in ice (or worse), and were generally shipped via Fed Ex rather than being trucked from one place to another. They're actually the same species (Placopecten magellanicus) as offshore sea scallops: they just come from Maine waters and are harvested in small quantities from Maine's inshore waters and are treated with the respect they deserve (at least GENUINE diver scallops are. Be sure to read the blog to understand why you rarely get the real thing).
So OK, what about with Hokkaido scallops? You'll sometimes see these on high-end menus, particularly at sushi restaurants. I've tried Hokkaido scallops (yesso scallop, (Mizuhopecten yessoensis) and I've enjoyed them. They're mild and sweet and have a very pleasant creamy texture. They're certainly heads and shoulders above most scallops you find in the US. But again, and I'll admit I'm a little biased here, I don't find them any better than Maine Dayboat Scallops. So why do folks seek them out specifically? I think the waters around Hokkaido likely have distinctive qualities that make these scallops tasty, but another important piece is that they're generally shipped fresh via overnight air or are individually quick frozen and exported without adulteration, so they're going to have a natural moisture content or very close to it.
So here's where I'm going with all this: I would argue that it's not that Argopecten irradians or Mizuhopecten yessoensis are any tastier than Placopecten magellanicus. It's just that they're treated as a premium product - they move quickly from harvester to consumer with limited or no exposure to fresh water or chemicals. And that's exactly what we do with Maine Dayboat Scallops here at Downeast Dayboat.
In the past two years I've learned that many chefs purchase live whole sea scallops from dayboat fishermen who fish the waters off Cape Cod or Long Island. When I first heard this I was excited, because I wanted to find out how they prepared the whole scallop (I'm still looking for good mantle and roe recipes). So imagine my surprise when I discovered they were NOT preparing the whole scallop: they were shucking the scallop and discarding everything except the adductor muscle. At first I was shocked: WHY would you pay so much for live scallops if you were discarding everything but the "white meat". But then I realized: in the US, it's really hard to source premium, unadulterated scallops (or at least it used to be), so these chefs are paying top prices for whole, live scallops and discarding everything except the adductor muscle. That's a lot of money and work to get a top quality sea scallop, and it's kind of sad that they feel they need to do that. But guess what: they don't!.
Here at Downeast Dayboat, our goal is to show Americans what scallops are SUPPOSED to taste like. That goes for chefs AND consumers. We source our scallops from small boats that fish Maine's waters between December and March, and then from small Maine boats fishing in the Northern Gulf of Maine Scallop Management Area, which usually runs until early May. From May through November we ship frozen Maine Dayboat Scallops and occasionally fresh scallops from Cape Cod dayboat fishermen.
Life is too short to eat "meh" scallops. Fortunately, you don't have to, because at Downeast Dayboat we treat our scallops like the delicious luxury they are. Not only are they delicious: they're so pure you can actually discern differences between different harvest areas. Don't believe us? Try our variety pack and sample them raw, where the differences are more easily discerned.
So go ahead and Taste the difference a day makes®