Postcard from Zaragoza, Spain: Seductive scallops and marisquerias

Above: Zamburinas at Marisqueria Tony

Faithful making the long Camino de Santiago pilgrimage crossing from France through Spain, perhaps a 500-mile hike, wanted to return with a souvenir as proof of the arduous journey afoot. A shell found commonly on the Galician coast just beyond the route’s destination of Santiago de Compostela became that evidence, a variegated or calico sea scallop, zamburina.

The shell, including its plumper cousins known as vieira in Spain and coquilles Saint Jacques in French, became symbolic of the saint – Saint James in English, Santiago in Spanish or Saint Jacques in France. One of the original 12 apostles, his relics are housed in the cathedral at the end of the route. For more than 1,000 years, innkeepers, townspeople and farmers along the way have hung shells on their doors to indicate pilgrims are welcome to stop.

Although we had been crisscrossing the camino in our travel destinations in France last fall and then in Spain this past spring, my shell fascination became the animal that called it home. I’ve always been a lover of sea scallops, but the coquilles Saint Jacques we first encountered around Bordeaux and Toulouse seemed a different mollusk entirely. They have what resembles a large red comma attached, firmer yet tender and more flavorful than the round white part.

But I was wrong about the “punctuation” missing on the American mollusks. All scallops have great abs, and Americans generally only eat that portion, the white disc adductor muscle that claps the shell together rapidly to propel scallops through the water. Turns out we consistently throw that colorful red organ in the trashcan rather than keep it for cooking. Or maybe chefs refuse to share, greedily gobbling them up behind closed kitchen doors.

The discarded commas? They are the genital glands – gonal, coral and roe – of the mollusks, hermaphrodites possessing both male and female sex organs handy for spawning. Ah, yet another example of our prudish wasteful habits (include me among the guilty in numerous cases) far from the nose-to-tail practice of most countries.

But this organ is delicious, although my introduction to it was made easy by total ignorance as to its identity. Defend its inclusion on your plate as ferociously as Oxford University Press defends its serial comma against attacks by the rest of England.

While the French seem partial to saucing up their scallops, Spaniards tend to let the fresh flavors of seafood stand on their own with only a squeeze of lemon. And the marisquerias, seafood specialists we frequented on the edge of El Tubo, Zaragoza’s famed neighborhood for tapas, were prime proponents of this straightforward approach.

Our two favorite spots were simple, no-frills on their interior as well, with only a few tables and long counters where locals crowded up elbow-to-elbow to order and converse loudly with friends or acquaintances made on the spot – Marisqueria Tony and Bar Belanche. Seafood is so reasonably priced we felt free to sample a wide variety. Taberna 1941, a pulperia specializing in octopus, boasted much tonier service, resulting in slightly higher tabs, and an enormous patio fronting Plaza de Espana.

Lent had just ended, but Bar Belanche still offered the traditional tortas de camarones, packed with shrimp. Like many a tapa spot, the primary vegetables, often the only vegetables aside from chopped tomatoes dressed in olive oil, are pimientos de padron, grilled or fried green chiles.

Belanche also featured a tasty regional stew of clams filled with borage, a fuzzy-leafed herb also known as starflower, that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) credited with possessing “an excellent spirit to repress the fuliginous vapor of dusky melancholy.” Borage or not, we never departed Zaragoza’s marisquerias feeling sad.

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