24 Hours at the World’s Biggest Scallop Festival


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24 Hours at the World’s Biggest Scallop Festival

Set in a region where 240 tons of scallops are processed every week, Brittany's Scallop Festival is a true paradise for bivalve lovers.

On the last weekend of April, stalls popped up across the harbor, and the smell of freshly fired grills swirled around, carried by the English Channel's fragrant sea breeze. After my adventures in the land of ham, and a presidential tour of France at an agriculture show that was more about land than sea, I decided to take my inner hedonist on a spring vacation to Brittany for the Fête de la Coquille Saint-Jacques, a scallop festival that's a veritable El Dorado for gourmet eaters.

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A kilo of clams, fresh off the boat, is barely 3.5 euros. All photos by the author.

The epicurean in me set off towards this famous event, which takes place every year during peak season at one of the three fishing harbors in the department of Côtes-d'Armor: Erqui, Saint Quay Portieux, or, this year for the first time, the small port city of Paimpol. The local government's Committee on Fisheries established the Scallop Festival in 1992 in order to help overcome the simultaneous crises affecting the oil industry and the seafood trade. It quickly became one of the area's most popular culinary festivals. In this region, 240 tons of scallops are processed every week, with many exported internationally to some of the best restaurants in the world.

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Enthronement ceremony for the Scallop Knights of the Côtes-D'Armor.

When we arrived at the harbor, the day's competitive spirit was just beginning. In the crowd, we passed by locals, tourists, a few well-known people who were clearly getting tipsy, and representatives from various French culinary guilds. At a stand manned by the Maritime School's fishermen in training, a kilo of scallops, fresh off the boat, was barely 3.5 euros—a godsend for seafood enthusiasts, who were wasting no time filling up their mesh shopping bags with provisions.

I had no time to join them, however, because I had a date with the Brotherhood of Scallop Knights of the Côtes-D'Armor. Parading around in full regalia, members of the Brotherhood have vowed to promote scallops throughout France and across the world. They've also promised to protect the culinary and gustatory values of the bivalve against all odds. I showed up in the midst of the enthronement ceremony for new members, which was a very solemn affair: At the end of the harbor, aspiring knights lined up, each holding an empty scallop shell in their hands. The grand master of the brotherhood walked by each row twice, filling up the shells with a mysterious beverage. "The first time, it's supposed to be seawater. The second, a dry white wine," one of the victims told me.

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As the ceremony ran its course, new members were inducted one by one. During the induction of a new member named Gisèle, the president smiled and announced, "Originally from Alsace and now based in Madagascar, her specialty is to bring back cases of rum without getting caught at customs." Gisèle was quick to offer her retort: "At the table, nothing can take me down." Later, the whole crew joined other brotherhoods at a banquet held at the harbor's event hall.The Brotherhood of the Scallop Knights can count two famous representatives among its members: Flamboyant theater director Michou and actor Gérard Depardieu. "Gégé (Depardieu) took the oath while filming


. In fact, you can spot the Brotherhood in the movie," said Jean, one of the founders of the organization. Do the stars know how to cook it, though? When asked for the tastiest way to prepare scallops, Jean's answer was crystal clear: "Grill both sides with a bit of butter, and there you go. It's pretty good on a skewer, too."

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Cali singing for scallops.

To test this theory, we headed to the Culinary Association of Paimpol's tent. Here, in a small makeshift kitchen behind the main pavilion, several grills and deep fryers were sizzling. At one grill, we met Romain Hardy, a young local chef who was offering up a unique menu: scallop kabobs grilled with ginger and served with Paimpol cider. He didn't skimp on the kabobs—each skewer had six or seven large scallops with fries on the side, and a few glasses of the local fermented apple juice.


After we'd swallowed up the kabobs, we heard some music coming from the parking lot across the street and followed the swarms who were rushing towards the stage in step with the rhythm of the drums. Just when I thought I'd seen it all in life, my expectations were shattered upon witnessing this crowd totally lose it as Cali, a singer from Perpignan, took the stage. He played three of his singles—the rough equivalent of three kabobs, in terms of ingestion time.

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As empty scallop shells started to pile up around me, I decided to head to the other end of the harbor where local food producers had Breton specialties on offer. First stop, Philippe Mordeles: an artisan who counts among his specialties kouign-amann. The recipe for this delicacy, which is emblematic of Brittany, boils down to two principal ingredients: "Lots of butter and lots of sugar," laughed Philippe, who handed us the object of desire. And while the kouign-amann is generally notorious for its dense, nearly suffocating texture, Philippe's version was creamy and went down easy.

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Nonetheless, I could feel my throat drying up a bit and Philippe quickly pointed out his brother Stéphane's hydromel stand. It is said that this alcoholic beverage, called


in Brittany, is the oldest in the world. Legend has it that the Gauls were able to curb the Roman invasion thanks to hydromel, "The drink held back the warlords," explained Stéphane. "They bought barrels that were poisoned with bee stingers, which made the soldiers crazy."

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All-you-can-drink chouchen.

Hydromel is a mixture of alcohol, water, honey, and yeast, which ferments anywhere from two to five years. The resulting beverage is 10 to 18% alcohol.

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My throat started to burn—a perfect excuse to make a small detour towards the Val-André Lollipops stand. Founded in 1928, this company sells dozens of lollipop flavors, and has become one of the region's signature brands. "Originally, it was a Parisian passing through Pléneuf-Val-André who set up a little hut and sold some candies to pay for his vacation rental," said Laurent Emery, who took over the confectionery in 1998. Since then, thousands of customers have been quick to snag its small production runs of fig, cactus, coconut, and anise flavored lollipops. "We're the smallest candy shop in France, and our biggest competitor is 20 times larger than us, Emery said. "We're preparing for next summer, when we're launching a new flavor: Tomato Basil."

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Despite all the clichés about Brittany's endless rains, the sun stayed out all day, allowing thousands of revelers to gobble down unthinkable quantities of scallops and cider. Such is the mission of the festival organizers, who practically deem it a public health issue, and have worked to keep the tradition alive for more than 20 years, braving high winds and high tides. Long live the scallop, and here's to a free Brittany!