By Dave Seel, Long Island Food Correspondent
It was a mild grey New Year’s Eve when our car pulled into the dirt parking lot of the Southold Fish Market. Out past the fish market’s docks, the water of Southold Bay was calm and glassy as several gulls and a snowy egret flapped across the pristine surface.
We had come to sample a local seafood favorite harvested from those very waters: Peconic Bay Scallops. There are few places to get them as fresh as The Southold Fish Market.
Stepping into the small market, there were locals lined up to grab all kinds of seafood before the market closed for their January vacation. The market is short on frills. Inside, a small, carpeted hallway opens up to a large concrete floored workroom where the most recent “catch” is tossed on ice or in steel bins for sale.
I weaved my way around a worker shucking oysters and found Charlie Manwaring shelling shrimp just before he headed out on vacation. Charlie has worked in the fishing industry his whole life and took over the market in 2000. With both his father and grandfather still spending each day out on the water, fishing and seafood is in his blood. He prepares the market’s seafood from his family’s recipes and ever since it’s been a prime spot for a fresh, local seafood lunch.
You can check out this cooking video with him from the Port of Egypt “Open House.”
Amidst the activity of cleaning, shelling, and shucking seafood, Charlie and I chatted about the current Peconic Bay Scallop season. “For us, the season is from the first weekend in November ‘till around March. I think we’ll have scallops all the way through this year. It’s a good year and there’s scallop all the way from Montauk to Flanders Bay (the western edge of the Peconic Bay)."
He continued to explain that due to recent regulations, limiting the size of scallop the fishermen can keep, the scallops are making a huge comeback. “As long as they’re breeding, it’s a good thing for all of us.” These new regulations along with the return of bay grasses have contributed to better harvests in the last few years.
Excited to try this year’s harvest, I let Charlie get back to shelling shrimp and was handed off to his sister to put in an order: a basket of fried Peconic bay scallops and fried local oysters.
Our food was ready after a short walk out on the docks. The breading was light and the surprisingly sweet, nutty, briny taste of the scallops washed over our palates. The oysters were small but packed a perfect salty and buttery flavor. Normally, fried food isn’t paired with anything fresh, but their cole slaw and choice of a side salad or thin cut French fries were all pleasant, fresh additions to the meal. As my wife put it- “There’s fried food, and then there’s this deliciousness.”
If you ever pick up a pound of Peconic Bay scallops for home, be sure to not overcook or over-flavor them -- little salt, lemon juice, and maybe a light breading is all that’s needed.
But if you’re up for a drive or out on the North Fork, The Southold Fish Market is the perfect spot to taste the bay’s harvest on the water. Order a few baskets of oysters, scallops, and steamers and have a seat on a picnic table by the bay to appreciate the taste of fresh, local food plucked by folks who’ve fished these waters for generations.