A recent bike riding trip to Northern Spain yielded a peculiar memento, a large scallop shell to wear around the neck, like a necklace. It was handed out by our trip leader as a sign that we had been on the Camino, the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
This unusual icon became the focus of stories about the holy shrine devoted to St. James and , curiously enough, a French dish I love, coquilles St Jacques.
Let’s start with the shrine. In the year 800, a Christian hermit living in Galicia in northwestern Spain, had a vision. It was a shaft of light shining toward a mausoleum hidden among shrubs and brushes in a Roman cemetery. The hermit concluded that the light, which he considered divine, was pointing to the burial spot of St. James, one of Christ’s apostles.
The field became known as Campus Stellae, the star field, the word eventually transfiguring into Compostela in Spanish.
There was a Christian legend that the Saint had traveled to Iberia, although many scholars doubt this. Until then his final burial place had been unknown. The Church confirmed the hermit’s discovery, and in an age of superstition, in a country recently overrun by Moorish Muslims, the legend of St. James blossomed into that of a pilgrim and a Moor-slaying knight. The Spanish name for St. James is Santiago.
The church built on the location became known as Santiago de Compostela, and it turned into a major pilgrimage site. The spot was particularly well suited for European pilgrims who could not go to Jerusalem because it was occupied by Muslims.
The Camino to Santiago de Compostela was arduous. Pilgrims spent months on foot or with mules traversing different paths, coastal or inland, first through the rugged Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain, then via barren, hilly and unfriendly Basque country to reach their destination.
Gradually the Camino became more user friendly with knightly protection and various rest stops along the way featuring inns and churches.
The scallop shell, a symbol of St. James, became proof of the pilgrimage to Santiago. There are varying accounts of how the scallop was adopted as a symbol. The simplest is that scallops are prevalent in Galicia and the crusaders of the Order of St. James, protectors of the pilgrims, pioneered it as their own symbol.
Other stories include a legend that St. James saved a drowning knight’s life and the knight came out of the water covered in scallop shells. Some also say that St. James died elsewhere and that his body, lost in the ocean, washed ashore in Spain covered in scallops.
Regardless, the scallop shell is now a firmly established icon. In an age where tourists far outnumber pilgrims on the Camino, scallop necklaces are sold everywhere along the route, in churches and souvenir shops.
In one of the important stops along the Camino we encountered another legend that spawned a peculiar sight, a live rooster and hen housed in a gilded cage within a cathedral, Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
The story was that in Medieval times a handsome young German named Hognell, a pilgrim on the Camino, stayed in an inn at the town, nowadays named for the cathedral. There a young woman was attracted to him but he rejected her advances. The spurned woman slipped a silver cup into his baggage and reported him to the authorities as a thief. Hognell was caught, tried and executed on the gallows. The young man’s parents who were also on the pilgrimage went to view their son’s body. They were surprised to hear their dead son talk to them, saying that the local bishop, eventually known as Santo Domingo de la Calzada (St. Dominic of the Causeway), had saved his life.
The parents immediately went to the city magistrate and reported their experience. The skeptical magistrate who was having supper at the time, responded that their son was about as alive as the rooster and chicken he was about to eat. Thereupon, much everyone’s astonishment, the animals came alive, hopped off their plates and began to crow.
The story became a miracle attributed to the bishop Santo Domingo de Calzada, and a new tradition began of housing a live chicken and rooster in his cathedral.
We visited this magnificent church and its captive poultry. In the crypt we discovered beautiful mosaics depicting the story of Hognell and the rooster and hen. Hognell was portrayed with a prominent scallop shell on his left chest, above his heart.
Now for the French dish. The classic presentation of coquilles St. Jacques is scallops baked and served on a scallop shell with béchamel sauce and seasonings. In French, coquilles simply means shells; no reference to the scallop.
In other languages scallops are just that, scallops in English, vieiras in Spanish, scallopini in Italian. But the French identify it with a reference to St James, St. Jacques: coquilles St. Jacques, shells of St. James. The name is yet another reference to the Santiago pilgrimage, and as you might guess, there is a legend associated with it.
The story goes that when St. James went on his own pilgrimages, he carried with him half a scallop shell. When good Samaritans offered him food or drink he only accepted a small amount that fit on the shell.
Nowadays a single shell of coquilles St. Jacques would be inadequate. Most French bistros serve two to four, depending on the size of the shell. My best experience with this dish has been at Café Claude, a French Bistro in San Francisco where it periodically appears on the menu.
We did not eat any scallops during our two week Spanish sojourn, the country leaning more toward cod, hake and octopus for seafood. We had to contend with the stories and the beautiful shell necklace memento. Now, back in the U.S., it is time to search for a good plate of coquilles St. Jacques and experience it with reverence toward the good St. James whose stories, apocryphal as they are, were quite fulfilling.