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Scallop season approaches

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | A basketful of bounty: It’s almost scallop season. Will this year be a boom or a bust?
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | A basketful of bounty: It’s almost scallop season. Will this year be a boom or a bust?

If you think you know a lot about scallops — those treasured bi-valves that Islanders begin to crave when the days grow shorter and a touch of coming winter is in the air — writer Charity Robey has a new word for you: merroir.

Ms. Robey, who will speak Friday, October 6 at the Shelter Island Public Library’s Friday Night Dialogues series, made use of the word this past July in England at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, where she presented her research on scallop flavor and history.

Merroir — pronounced ‘mehr-wha’ — is based on terroir, a word derived from French and coined by oenophiles and foodies to describe how the unique set of environmental factors and farming practices where a plant has grown influences its flavor.

Instead of “terre” for earth, substitute “mer” for sea, Ms. Robey said, and you have a word that can be used to explain the subtle ways the marine environment and methods of harvesting affect the flavor of organisms that grow there.

“The theme of the conference was food in the landscape and its relationship to the landscape,” she said in a recent interview. “I set out to talk about how the scallop is connected to the Peconic Estuary and how the scallop has affected the history of the area.”

Given how much Islanders already know about scallops, Ms. Robey says her presentation at the library will be more like looking through an old family album. Peppered with references to names familiar to most, it will feature photos of local baymen, shucking shacks, scalloping dredges and other gear associated with what remains, despite many challenges, an important industry here.

Before the brown tides of the late 20th century occurred, scalloping gave Islanders a fairly reliable way to augment their incomes earnings during the winter.

“I’ll talk about what happened when the railroad came in and it was possible to ship scallops to New York City in a less than a day,” Ms. Robey said. “All of a sudden it became a huge industry and people made a lot of money scalloping.”

An example of merroir, Ms. Robey says, is the local “intuitive opinion that scallops that are taken on mud tasted better than scallops taken on hard surfaces.

“They do taste like the mud, in a good way,” she said.

Peconic Estuary scallops are so highly prized by chefs in New York City and elsewhere, shoppers here have to look carefully — and be prepared to pay up — for locally harvested scallops.

Scallops may be taken in state waters starting the first Monday in November and in Island waters, the second Monday. The season lasts through the end of March.

Unfortunately, prospects for this year’s crop aren’t great, Ms. Robey said. Illegal harvesting of juvenile scallops last fall and algal blooms this summer put pressure on what had been a rebounding population.

Juvenile scallops — called bugs — are those less than about 2.5 inches in diameter that lack a noticeable growth ring. A scalloper hauls up a dredge and sorts through the catch, throwing back any bugs. It is not legal to keep them because they have not yet spawned and their survival is essential to the continued good health of the scallop population.

Unlike oysters and clams, scallops move.

“They clap their shells and flit about,” Ms. Robey said, avoiding predators like whelks and starfish. “When they are spawned, they hide in grass, but by the next fall, they’re generally big enough to venture out a bit more.“

Filter feeders, they eat microorganisms in the water. Because they can move, she said “they can make choices about where they eat which affects their flavor when you eat them.”

A scallop’s lovely pinkish hue? It means the scallop had been “eating algae that has betacarotene,” Ms. Robey said.

When they’re about 2 years old, the hermaphroditic scallops spawn, which they do just once.

“It completely exhausts them,” Ms. Robey said. “They’re not very good to eat at that point.”

But they spend the summer growing and re-building their glycogen stores.

“We eat them when they’re retired,” she said. “There is no guilt in eating a scallop because it is going to die anyway.

“That’s why the whole thing with the juveniles is so horrifying. Not only are they not around to eat, they’re not around to spawn. And those that weren’t taken last year, their spawn was exposed to poisonous algae blooms.”

To learn more, attend Ms. Robey’s talk, “From Salty Estuaries and Glacial Till: The History and Incomparable Flavor of the Peconic Bay Scallop” at Friday Night Dialogues on Friday, October 6 at 7 p.m. in the library’s lower level community room.

Ms. Robey, a feature writer and columnist for the Reporter,  whose work has appeared in Edible East End, Long Island Pulse and The New York Times, has also worked as a scientific and technical book editor at John Wiley and Sons and is a programming chair for Culinary Historians of New York.

Next up: Friday, October 20, “One Big Home,” a documentary film about carpenter Thomas Bena who, having built mega mansions, works to limit the size of houses on Martha’s Vineyard.