Opinion: Angus MacPhail celebrates the jewels of our ocean

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Good food is one of life’s great pleasures and I have long been ridiculed by most around me for the level of euphoria I experience when eating certain culinary delights.
Among the myriad of sustenance choices available, my favoured genre is shellfish and at the very peak of that mountain range of mouthwatering magnificence are three specific items belonging to different animal parts of three well-known West Coast sea creatures.
So, in the style of one of Macbeth’s witches, give me the tail of a female lobster, the claw meat of a male brown crab and the clean white flesh of a scallop. There are some close contenders hot on the heels of these morsels of tantalising taste perfection, but each one of these three can send me into a state of ecstasy.
Alas, although we live surrounded by the crystal-clear waters that bear these fruits, they are still remarkably difficult to obtain for the average consumer in Scotland.
Most shellfish landed on the West Coast go straight to the continent, with Spain being the most significant destination. France and Portugal are big consumers and there are new markets opening up in the Far East.
Ironically, it is easier to get good quality Scottish shellfish if you are on holiday in Santiago de Compostella in Spain than at home where the stuff is actually caught.
As well as being the givers of blissful pleasure, these same items, when ordered in a restaurant, can cause severe disappointment. As happens far too frequently, what you receive is a poor excuse for the dish that is being salivated over in anticipation.
A substandard scallop is not merely a poor version of what you expect. It is like eating a piece of mildly fish-
flavoured rubber and bears no resemblance to the taste and texture of the same item if you had eaten it nearer the time it was caught – before it had been soaked in water to increase the weight and then stored as long as possible in a restaurant or fishmonger’s fridge, still safe to eat but sadly bereft of all the sweet succulent nutritious attributes it once proudly held.
However, there is light at the end of this frustrating tunnel. More and more restaurants are learning how to store and cook shellfish and, as a town, Oban can be proud in having been at the forefront of this for many years.
Some excellent fishmongers are also bringing progress in making it more widely available for cooking at home. Newly established shops – Iain Stewart Fish Sales in Fort William and Namara (a branch of North Uist- based Kallin Shellfish) in Glasgow, as well as the much-loved and long-established Donald Watt and Sons in Oban and Loch Fyne Oysters in Cairndow are all places where high quality of product is paramount.
At the moment, in terms of volume landed, the domestic market for Scottish shellfish is minute but, in time, the jewels of our ocean will hopefully gain their rightful place high in our culinary hearts.

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