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Travel + Culture

Spanish Scallop Scandal

black market scallops

It’s not every day that a Michelin-starred chef gets thrown in the slammer. And there are even fewer when the cause behind the arrest is not some routine debauchery like snorting coke off the coat-check girl’s cleavage. But on Friday, Spanish chef Toñi Vicente (of the eponymous restaurant) was sent to the clink for trafficking. In bad scallops.

Seems there’s quite an underground racket in Galicia for black market scallops. The Spanish region is known for its shellfish, but it also has a wee problem with pollution, which is why scallop fishing in one bay, the Ria de Ferrol, has been banned for several years. Scallops harvested there contain high levels of a toxin that can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP), which in turn can lead to memory loss, dementia, and even (in rare cases) death.

Pish posh. What’s a little neurological damage when there’s money to be made? A small band of unscrupulous fishermen have for months been catching the bivalves and selling them directly to chefs for 1.50 euros apiece. Police had been on the case since July, when a routine traffic stop turned up 400 kilos of toxic mollusks in the back of a van.

But that was nothing compared to what they hauled in on Saturday: six fishermen, a distributor, and 4,000 kilos of shellfish, plus Vicente, who was reportedly arrested in flagrante—as she was buying for her menu, which currently includes four scallop dishes.

Vicente was later released on bail, and has protested her innocence. Other chefs in the region have come to her defense, accusing the government agencies charged with enforcing sanitation standards and fishing regulations of not doing their jobs, and worrying that these arrests will mean disaster for their restaurants. But as of Tuesday, Toñi Vicente was open for business. With, one assumes, a few revisions to the menu.