Travel: She who dares, dines

Beneath the glassy surface of Loch Crinan lurks a beast: the silent, mantled scallop. To eat them you have to meet them...
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Christian Delteil had been trying to get me into his kitchen for years. Ever since Delteil, chef director of the Bank Group of restaurants (Bank, Fish, Lawn Terrace) found out that I, too, had once been a chef - for a week - he had been keen to further my training. As an enticement he proferred diving for scallops in Argyll, thereby headily mixing two of my favourite things: fish and Scotland.

The plan was simple: get up ridiculously early, fly to Glasgow, be picked up, drive to a loch, dive, drive back.

The reality proved to be gloriously different. First the weather intervened; Glasgow airport was shrouded in fog, so the plane went to Prestwick where it landed safely but sat on the tarmac for two hours while some stairs were found. We eventually stepped onto Scottish soil at 11 o'clock, having taken the 7.30 flight from London.

All of this was forgotten as we made our way to the west coast, and began the two-hour-plus drive to Loch Crinan. Noses were pressed against car windows, mouths dropped open slightly, sunglasses were pushed back on heads as the scenery started to seduce us. I would challenge the most stressed-out person not to become calm and quiet on this journey past Loch Lomond, through the Regional Park and the Argyll Forest Park and along Loch Fyne. The landscape was made for painting. There was a bit of everything. Huge and handsome craggy brown hills soared in the background, looking darker and more menacing against the deep turquoise sky. The lakes were awesome, unbelievably still, like giant ink wells holding midnight blue ink. And the trees draped in lichen and moss shed their gold and red leaves onto the road. The air had that crisp stillness that brings everything into sharper contrast. Imagine all you have heard of the landscape of Canada and the prettiness of New England. This is what we saw.

Unfortunately, after about one hour, I started to feel very, very car sick; a malaise I hadn't felt since - well, since the last time I was in Scotland. Beauty always has a price and Scotland's most beautiful parts are reached by many winding roads.

As well as being a chef, Delteil is also a diving leader and frequently dives for the scallops he serves in his restaurants. The scallops are ranched - not farmed since they are placed there but not fed - in Loch Crinan. They begin their lives in Ireland, which is apparently a very good nursery, and are then transported as quickly as possible to the loch, aged 12 months.

When the scallops are moved they get a bit upset and this is shown on their shells as a "shock ring". It is the only way to tell a ranched scallop from a completely wild one. They taste the same. None of the more obvious and tragic differences you get between Scotland's most famous piscatorial exports, the wild and farmed salmon.

Scallops are marine bivalve molluscs of the Pectinidae family. Those in Loch Crinan are specifically Pecten Maximus. They open and close their fan-like shells with their adductor muscle, which is the lovely white fleshy bit we eat. And this is how they swim, by clapping their shells together propelling themselves along. They don't swim much, except to get away from their natural predator, that childhood seaside favourite, the starfish; and divers. Hard to think of the starfish as a bully, but it is. It wraps its tentacley arms around the poor scallop, forcing its shell open. Although the scallop's adductor muscle is initially very strong, after about a minute the scallop grows weak. The crafty starfish knows this and is patient. Then it sticks its belly right in there and ingests the scallop straight into its stomach. No munching, nothing.

The scallops at Crinan are laid out, much like wine, according to year. The rancher, Richard, knows where they all are. Scallops are harvested when they are about five years old and the diver knows by the size of the shell - a ripe one will be the size of a man's outstretched palm.

We took a boat out to where the late-1994s were nestling. Delteil was not happy. It was cold. He had been waiting ages for us at the airport. It seemed cruel of me to tell him that I would not be diving with him as I had not completed my diving training. As a matter of fact I hadn't started it (and how I wish I had when we got out there - it was so glorious). But tell him I had to.

As a peace offering I helped him on with his wet suit which had apparently grown rather tight over the summer. His flippers went on, a big knife was strapped, Ursula Andress-style, to his calf (all divers carry knives in case they get caught in giant clams) and an oxygen cylinder was heaved onto his back. Carrying his scallop basket, which was attached to a buoy, in he went to the ten-metre level which is the supposed optimum depth at which to keep scallops.

Richard told us that a good diver can get about 1,000 scallops in an hour, which is 250 covers in the restaurant. He started to explain how the scallop, which is asexual, reproduces. It basically spurts millions of eggs and sperm into the water where they are fertilised. The eggs become larvae and then settle on the bottom. The pinky bit, the part most people don't like eating, is called the roe or coral. Or gonad. (Convinced Richard was referring to the Latin name for roe I made him spell out gonad, which he patiently did.)

Not everyone hand-picks their scallops. They can be dredged for using big nets but that's a bit indiscriminate and so we all looked down our noses at the thought. I asked Richard if he had ever seen a monster in Loch Crinan and he said not but that there were a few octopus down there. I checked for Delteil's bubbles.

He came up after 20 minutes with a basket full of scallops. Because of a recent Ministry of Agriculture ban, we were not allowed to eat them as unsafe levels of amnesic shellfish poison had been found in various parts of Scotland, here being one of them. All the nasty starfish were taken out and the scallops were put back, but not before I checked them for their shock rings. There was one totally wild scallop in among them - a grand old thing of ten. They have growth rings you can count.

It must be very difficult to watch out for your divers here because the scenery is so distracting. Loch Crinan looks out across to the Sound of Jura, described by many as one of the most beautiful views in Scotland. There was little going on. It was very, very still. I only saw one cormorant skim down and take something off the water.

The loch, unlike some lakes in Scotland, seems very friendly and I just wanted to jump in and see what was going on underneath the surface. Not something that comes to mind on Loch Ness, which is what I would call a really scary lake. But here! A salted margarita and I might never have come ashore.

But we did, to news that Glasgow had still not thrown off her foggy mantle and various flights had been cancelled, and we had to stay the night in the Crinan Hotel which is rather overpriced but you get dinner thrown in, and I think you pay for the view. Over tea and cake Delteil and I discussed food and his deepest dive to date: to 60 metres in southern Italy when he went cave diving, a very dangerous sport.

Then we went for a walk with the photographer, who had decided she was going to move to Scotland. The sun sets slowly here, reluctant to go to bed on such spectacular scenery. On the way back we looked at the langoustine boats that were coming in, with the langoustines in their individually celled boxes (to stop them nipping each other), their claws peeking out making weird snapping noises.

We ate Loch Fyne scallops for dinner, and these were served sans gonads.

Then we all went to sleep in rooms that looked out across the now-dark and magical Loch Crinan. A few lights blinked lazily in the distance. We were to rise early the next day to make the journey that none of us now wanted to make, away from Crinan and Scotland.

Several days later I joined Christian in his kitchens to cook scallops, and remembered why I had lasted such a short time all those years ago. It is very hard and hot work and the discipline is horrendous - it's all "yes chef, no chef" and no cheekiness is allowed.

First we cleaned the scallops. These came from the east coast where there was no ban on their harvest. A knife was slid in between the shells to release the little muscle that attaches the scallop to its home. Just inside the shell is the mantle, or scallop's skirts. This goes all the way round the shell edge where the scallop's many eyes are. It is either completely discarded or used as a base for sauce.

The very first thing Delteil did was to let me taste naked scallops, served with no seasoning. They are unbelieveably sweet. Then we cut the scallops extremely thinly which was not easy with a twice-Michelin-starred chef watching. These were sprinkled with ginger and steamed over seaweed water and then drizzled with a reduced shallot sauce. We also cooked scallops en croute where half the shell is used as a base, and the whole thing is topped with puff pasty. Delteil warned it was very important to add salt just before cooking, as otherwise the salt starts to cook the scallops and dries them out.

It is always a very strange experience eating something that you have learnt so much about. Delteil says that when the divers go underwater to harvest, the scallops see them, and they start to swim away. Sometimes, he said, you do not even have to root around for them in the silt where they lie, with just the frilly edge of their shells showing - you just grab them as you pass.

I thought of where they had come from, of their cool and beautiful loch bed in Scotland, with octopus and langoustine and starfish as neighbours. And I looked at them now, plump and delicious on my plate, surrounded by a julienne of beans and ginger and damp with delicious sauce. And I hesitated for just a moment. Then I ate them.

Bank Birmingham opens on December 6 (0121-633 4466)