Funny old place, Rye. In fact, if Doctor Who crash-landed his Tardis in the centre of town, he would be hard pressed to say what century he was in. Rye dreams dozily through the years, sat atop a sandstone promontory and gazing across the Kent marshes out to the sea. It was once an important medieval port, and has been a fishing town for years despite being two miles from the sea, and its modest harbour and fleet continue to thrive, landing a catch every day which you can buy straight off the boat (though much of it sadly ends up in France). There are some decent places to try its daily catch in the town, and really any time of year is a nice time to visit. But once a year the town throws off its midwinter torpor and comes alive for the raucously impressive Rye Bay Scallop Festival, which takes over the entire town for a week every February, with a whole host of scalloped-themed events and activities, ranging from shucking demonstrations, tasting sessions, scallop races, even scallop bingo.
Now, we reckon the best thing to do with a plump, juicy scallop is to eat it, but this festival isn't just about food. Indeed it kicks off at the excellent Ship Inn with the Rye Scallops and the Lash! Beauty Pageant on the Friday night – 'an evening of Neptunian frivolity and outrageous fishy outfits', according to them. Normal service is resumed at the Ship with their 'Scallops of the World Unite' event on Wednesday, when they serve a six-course scallop menu with wine, an epic affair only rivalled by the offerings at the Mermaid Inn , where scallops are served in a variety of delicious ways all week. The Ship also hosts the 'What a Load of Scallops' race through town on the final Sunday, where teams of 2–4 people guide wheelbarrows stacked with scallop shells through the streets at breakneck speed to a backdrop of general mayhem.
If you're looking for a slightly more cerebral scallop experience, Webbe's on Tower Street runs a scallop school where you can learn how to prepare the gorgeous shellfish and then scoff five courses of scallop-based dishes; and you should also check in at Russell Drew's 'Talk and Taste' sessions, on the two Saturdays of the festival at Market Fisheries, where Russell – a veteran of Hairy Bikers on the telly – will teach you everything you need to know not only about shucking scallops but also about Rye's catch in general. Another local food celeb, Trevor Hambley, from the Beach Bistro at the Gallivant Hotel, will also be cooking up a storm during festival week at the same location and also at the Mermaid Inn. As Trevor says, 'scallops don't get much fresher than this, liteally hours from being plucked from the sea; eating them this fresh is a revelation, and I can't wait to demonstrate a few really easy dishes for people to try at home'. Neither can we.
Rye Bay Scallop Week starts this Saturday, February 2, and continues until Sunday, February 10.