Some of Australia’s best scallops hit the market this month

 Image source: @fisheads via Instagram

The Abrolhos scallop lives in abundance in Western Australian waters, and has the lowest water-to-protein ratio of any Australian variety. Coming onto the market in April, it’s set to become one of the biggest stars of Australian seafood. John Susman met the family behind the scallop farm.

The Golden Age of Piracy, around the 17th and 18th centuries, is thought of today as a colourful episode in history, packed full of adventure.

But historians don’t promote this idolisation. In reality, pirates were cruel and their lives were short; many died in battle or at the end of the hangman’s rope. Piracy also impacted trade, commerce and travel to the New World for decades.

In 1629, the Batavia was on its maiden voyage transporting silver and gold to the Dutch East Indies when it was wrecked on the Houtman Abrolhos island chain, off Geraldton on Australia’s mid-west coast. Most of the 341 people on board swam to safety, but once ashore, a small band of pirating mutineers embarked on a murderous rampage, killing 125 of the survivors. When a rescue ship arrived from Jakarta three months later, the mutineers were apprehended and executed. The ship sailed back to Indonesia with the few remaining survivors, leaving the perpetrators’ bodies dangling from the gallows in the relentless southerly wind.

Close to 400 years later, the Abrolhos are a seasonal home for hardy fishermen who select, rather than plunder, the bounty of these remote and wild waters.

The local McGowan family has been fishing the islands for years.

Brothers Geoff, Ross, Bob and Peter are first generation fishermen whose pioneering spirit and love of the ocean found them setting up a number of fisheries, before pioneering what was to become the Abrolhos Islands Scallop Fishery.

Comprising 122 low-lying coral-fringed islands, the Abrolhos stretch across 100 kilometres of Indian Ocean, and the surrounding reef communities form one of Western Australia’s unique marine areas.

Lying in the stream of the warm, southward-flowing Leeuwin Current, the marine environment is a meeting place for tropical and temperate marine life.

Several species of scallops live on this coastline, but only the southern saucer scallop (Amusium balloti, or Abrolhos scallop), is abundant enough to support a commercial fishery in the environmentally sensitive area.

Abrolhos scallops feed on minute plants and animals that they digest by filtering water through their gills. The large, dense meat and unique flavour reflects the islands’ unique microclimate and water quality.

The Abrolhos scallop is an active swimmer, meaning it has a very strong the adductor (the part of the scallop we eat). The result of this activity is a scallop that has the lowest water-to-protein level of any in Australia, which is evident in its incredible sweetness and buttery texture.

The McGowans’ fishing method is trawling, which, unlike dredging, has a low impact on the sea floor or other marine life in the fishing zone. Although Abrolhos scallops settle on the sea bed, the sound of the fishing gear disturbs them, and they swim upwards into the nets.

Using short trawl shots of less than 45 minutes, the scallops land on deck live and quickly get dry-shucked, thus avoiding any exposure to freshwater.

The combination of the natural environment, the fishing and the processing, Abrolhos scallops are typified by their natural sweetness and long, umami-rich back palate with light notes of melon and crayfish. The firm yet yielding texture makes it versatile raw or cooked.

The Abrolhos scallop is coming to the market this month, ready to use throughout the season from April to October. It’s no surprise it’s set to become one of the stars of Australian seafood in 2019. 

This article was first published in foodservice's April 2019 issue. Read the digital magazine here.