Scottish shellfish

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Iain R Spink with his Arbroath Smokies © James Fraser Photography
Arbroath Smokies

Iain R. Spink shows how he smokes on location in the traditional way.

  • A lobster fisherman at Stromness Harbour, Mainland Orkney
    A lobster fisherman at Stromness Harbour, Mainland Orkney
  • A lLobster caught in the waters around the island of Grimsay, Outer Hebrides
    A lobster caught in the waters around the island of Grimsay, Outer Hebrides
  • A bowl of delicious mussels in a garlic and wine sauce at the Lock 16 seafood restaurant overlooking Loch Crinan, Argyll
    A bowl of delicious mussels at the Lock 16 seafood restaurant, Loch Crinan, Argyll
  • A fisherman sorts his catch at Kallin Harbour, Grimsay, Outer Hebrides
    A fisherman sorts his catch at Kallin Harbour, Grimsay, Outer Hebrides
  • Langoustines, oysters and other seafood arranged in a bowl on a outdoor table with a view of the loch
    A platter of fresh Scottish shellfish, as served at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Argyll

Scottish shellfish is renowned worldwide for its quality, with a vast array of different types of oysters, lobster, mussels, crab and scallop found round the country's extensive coastline. Much of the catch is available in coastal towns and big cities, where supermarkets, fishmongers and restaurants have well-organised supply lines.

Oysters, clams, scallops, mussels, whelks and spoots

Oysters

Oyster are found in shallow water - usually less than 10 metres deep - on fine, muddy sand. They have a strong salty taste of the sea and are enjoyed swallowed raw from the shell with just a sprinkling of lemon juice. They can also be cooked by grilling them in their half shells with a little butter.

While in the wild the European native oyster has been recognised as an endangered species and is protected by law, there are now some farms experimenting with breeding natives commercially. Currently, Pacific oysters are the most popular commercially as the cold water inhibits breeding, which means Scottish cultivated Pacific oysters can be consumed all year round.

Scallops

Around eight inches across, King or Great scallops are larger than the three-inch Queen scallops. Both have a creamy, white muscle and a bright orange roe - called coral. Farmed scallops are available all year, but wild ones are out of season in November when they spawn. Scallops can be bought live, in the shell or shelled.

Scallops should be consumed as soon as possible after buying and their shells are opened with a sharp knife or by heating them in the oven. Steam, shallow-fry in butter or grill with bacon but don't cook them for long. Small ones need only a few seconds and larger ones should only take a minute or so.

Mussels

The most common mussel found in Scotland is the Blue mussel, although there is also the Horse mussel, more commonly referred to as Clabbie Dubhs from the Gaelic Clab-Dubh meaning large, black mouth.

Wild mussels are a familiar sight around Scotland’s coastline as the blue-black shelled molluscs cling to rocks and jetties while farmed mussels are grown on ropes for 2 - 3 years and are a sustainable and environmentally responsible food source. Their sweet and salty orange-coloured flesh is best cook by steaming in a pan with a lid for a couple of minutes until they gape open, discarding any that remain shut.  

Whelks

Whelks, also known as ‘buckies’ or the common periwinkle, are saltwater molluscs with a spiral coiled shell, which is typically a grey or brown colour. They are a familiar sight around the Scottish coast and only need minimal cooking of about 10 - 15 minutes in boiling salted water, otherwise the flesh will be rubbery.

Razor clams

Spoots, otherwise known as razor clams are long, thin shellfish that look like an old cut-throat razor. They can be found in sandy beds below the tideline. Catching this popular delicacy is a highly skilled art and involves walking backwards across the sand - with a knife and bucket the size of your optimism at the ready - during low tide when the spoot beds are uncovered.

Lobster, langoustine and crab

Lobster

The European lobster is found all around the coast of Scotland, typically on hard rocky ground in relatively shallow waters. Revered for its gourmet flavour, it takes five years to reach an average weight of 3lb but they can live to the ripe old age of 15.

The earliest records of lobster fishing date back to the 12th century when they were hand gathered using crooks and hoop nets, but the introduction of pots and creels led to more commercial catches. Lobster is a low-fat, low-calorie and low-cholesterol food which is delicious enjoyed fresh from harbours and restaurants around Scotland's coast.

Langoustine

The Norway lobster, also known as langoustine, Dublin Bay prawn or scampi, is one of the most valuable seafood species landed in Scotland. Most are caught by trawlers, but in west coast lochs, creeling is more common.

They may be sold live, frozen or processed and the best time to buy them fresh is from April to November. Prepared in the same way as lobster, from raw they only need to be boiled for a few minutes as overcooking ruins their texture and flavour. They can be grilled with oil and garlic or served cold in a salad with homemade mayonnaise.

Crabs

Crabs have become a popular commercial catch around Scotland's shores, particularly the edible or brown crab and velvet crab. They share a similar rocky habitat and are widespread around Scotland, although velvet crabs are not as common on the east coast. Although available year-round, crabs are at their most delicious from April to November.

The soft, brown flesh from under the upper shell is rich and contrasts well with the firmer, sweet, white flesh found in the claws and body. If cooking at home, boil for a maximum of 30 minutes before picking out the meat from the body, taking care to leave behind the gills or 'dead man's fingers'.

Traditionally creeling for lobsters and crabs has been regarded as an inshore fishery and the most important Scottish centres include Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides and south east coast, with their catches mainly being shipped live to the markets of Continental Europe where they are highly prized.

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