Oysters

Oysters

By
Mark Hix
Contains
2 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781844003921
Photographer
Jason Lowe

Surprisingly perhaps, for a country where oysters were once sold on the streets as cheap food, we are no longer a nation of serious oyster eaters. Of course, we do still eat oysters, but to nowhere near the same extent as the French. There are many oyster fisheries around our coastlines, including a fair number on historic oyster farming sites, but you will rarely find an oyster shack or nearby restaurant serving them as you would across the Channel.

Oysters may no longer be cheap, but they deserve to be celebrated – as a simple bar snack or part of a main meal. The Wright Brothers’ Oyster & Porter House in London’s Borough market is a great place to eat and socialise and I’m hoping that more oyster bars will start to appear around the country for people to enjoy the fruits of the sea with friends.

In the Oyster & Chop House, we like to offer customers a choice and it’s not unusual to see five or six varieties chalked up on the board at any one time. Our oysters are all from the UK and Ireland – natives and cultivated rock oysters, as well as tiny pearl oysters. We sell them per oyster, which gives the customer the opportunity to order one of each. It’s a great way to appreciate the subtle differences in flavour, which vary with the time of the year as well as the variety of oyster.

I am constantly amazed how oyster farming and fishing varies so much around the country. I don’t think I’ve been to two oyster farms that use exactly the same method. All manner of traditional and modern techniques are employed by oyster farmers to get the best from their local beds.

Duchy of Cornwall oysters

For a city lawyer and a music producer, the Wright Brothers – Ben Wright and Robin Hancock – have done pretty well supplying oysters from France, the UK and Ireland to many of London’s top restaurants, and acquiring the Duchy of Cornwall oyster farm on the Helford River.

The Duchy is one of very few private oyster fisheries left in this country. Port Navas Creek, where the Duchy oysterage joins the Helford River, is HQ and the oysters are sorted, graded and purified under Ben’s watchful eye, ready to be transported to London and France.

Oysters have been grown on the Helford River for a few centuries now and evidence of oyster fishing dates back to the second and third centuries when the Celts first settled and built coastal forts during the Roman invasions.

Once the source of the majority of oysters in the UK, Helford oyster stocks were sadly depleted through neglect and fuel pollution over the years, like many other oyster fisheries around the coast. However, the river is now a marine conservation area and with voluntary help from the local community and Ben’s hard work the oysters have made a comeback.

A new cage cultivation technique is currently being pioneered, which involves growing several nets of oysters in cages, enabling them to be easily lifted from the river bed on any tide.

The Duchy of Cornwall oyster farm is now producing Frenchman’s Creek rocks from the tributary of the Helford; Helford Natives, which the late Keith Floyd claimed were his favourite; and Duchy Specials, which are plump rock oysters from the Helford.

The oysters of Colchester

Believe it or not Colchester, or Camulodunum as it was known then, was the capital of Roman Britain. It may not be much of a gastronomic haven these days, but it is still the capital of oyster cultivation.

The Romans adored oysters, revering them as a delicacy, and traded those that grew in the creeks surrounding Camulodunum. Not only did they transport them around the country, they also took them across the Channel, keeping them alive in roped sacks towed behind their ships. Oyster shells found in excavations provide evidence of the Romans love of our native oysters.

After the Romans departure, early in the fifth century, the status of the oyster declined and they became merely a cheap alternative to meat. Even so, up to the mid-nineteenth century, there was still a thriving oyster industry on the Blackwater and other estuaries along the Essex coast. Oysters were transported by boats, which sailed round the coast and up the Thames, mooring at Billingsgate. Their catch would fetch low prices, before being sold as cheap street food in the East End and in ale houses.

As the rail network developed, the demand for oysters grew across the country and subsequent over-fishing diminished stocks. The problem was further exacerbated by pollution from sewage that was being flushed into the estuary.

The demand for oysters may not be what it was in Roman times, but our coastal waters are much cleaner and there has been a revival of the industry in the area. In and around Colchester, I’ve come across some great oyster producers.

Maldon oysters

A decade ago on a chilly autumn morning, I went onto the Blackwater to shoot some wild fowl, forage some wild sea vegetables and gather a few oysters once the tide was fully out. As I waded out with a friend into the silty estuary to search for native and rock oysters camouflaged in the grey sand, we were totally alone in the peaceful tidal estuary, gathering food for free. Had we been in France, we most certainly wouldn’t have been alone.

Maldon, which is southwest of Colchester, is famous for its sea salt marshes and, of course, highly prized Maldon sea salt, but it also has oysters.

The Maldon Oyster Company, which started up in 1960, was originally owned by a cooperative of local fishermen and run by Clarrie Devall. The icy winter of 1963 killed off a lot of the oysters, but Devall started growing new stocks a few years later in Goldhanger Creek off the Blackwater.

In the early 1980s, Devall teamed up with David Coward-Talbott and started growing rock oysters on the old oyster beds, plus small quantities of natives in the main Blackwater. After Devall sadly passed away in 2002, Coward-Talbott formed the Maldon Oyster and Seafood Company with local businessman Richard Emans.

Since Coward-Talbot’s retirement, the company has been run by Richard and Caroline Emans, who are successfully farming oysters on about 3500 acres of the Blackwater.

They have built a swanky modern shellfish holding and purification plant at Cock Clark near Maldon. They also use an eco-harvester, which harvests shellfish without damage to the estuary bed. It’s great to see an area that was once a huge source of oysters brought back to something of its former glory.

West Mersea oysters

There are still a fair few serious oystermen on the island of West Mersea, to the south of Colchester. Richard Haward, for example, continues his family’s tradition, which dates back to 1792, of harvesting native oysters and taking them up to London to sell.

Richard’s wife Heather runs The Company Shed, one of my favourite eateries in West Mersea, which serves simply prepared great local seafood. You can also sample Richard’s oysters at his oyster bar on Fridays and Saturdays in London’s Borough Market. Haward specialises in natives, but 70 per cent of what he sells is the all-year-round rock oyster.

Another successful local trader, Christopher Kerrison of The Colchester Oyster Fishery, grows oysters in the upper part of the Pyfleet Creek, just behind Mersea Island. A few years ago Christopher started marketing Colchester Piccolos, which are half-size versions of the rock oyster, rather like a cocktail oyster I once came across in New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar called the Kumamoto.

Just down the road is Mike Dawson’s West Mersea Oyster company. Mike worked for a local oyster farmer when he left school until he set up his own company in 1990. Each year he sells about 70 tons of natives and has beds on the Blackwater and surrounding creeks.

Mike reckons that natives can be quite temperamental and when we have really extreme weather conditions they just don’t hold up. He tells me that certain wider, deeper parts of the creeks are just too cold for the oysters, whereas the shallower, narrower parts of the creek tend to be a bit warmer and more conducive for natives.

Like many other oyster farmers in the UK, Mike deals in a certain percentage of rock oysters, which are much sturdier in these extreme conditions and grow more quickly. He also grows a smaller species, which he has called the West Mersea Pearl.

Like Richard Haward, Mike Dawson has set up an oyster bar, where you can buy his oysters, lobster, and fantastically fresh deep-fried fish and chips. With traders like this, West Mersea is becoming one of the best places on the coast to eat really simple local fish and seafood and it makes a good day out for the family.

Lindisfarne oysters

I’m quite surprised that the Northeast is a bit of a desert when it comes to oyster farming. Christopher and Helen Sutherland run the only oyster farm on the northeast coast on a site that was established by the monks of the Lindisfarne Priory. There is even evidence to suggest that oyster beds existed as far back as 1381 when the monks bought an oyster-filled boat for 100 shillings from a Scotsman. In the late 1800s, there was an attempt by the Tankerville family to revive the oyster beds, but financial problems led to their demise again.

The Sutherlands’ oyster farm is a fairly recently revived venture, started up in 1989 by Christopher’s father, John, who farmed the land. At low tide, John discovered oysters shells and decided to have a go at farming at sea, too.

The oyster farm is situated between Ross, near Bamburgh, and Holy Island in Northumberland. Natives and rock oysters are both harvested.

I just love the way that oyster farming techniques are so diverse, with similar end results. Christopher and Helen have a pretty special amphibious oyster barge – similar to Gary’s down in Poole, but without the sophisticated dredger as the oysters here are accessible at low water ... well, fairly accessible.

In this case, the barge enables the oysters to be swiftly harvested from the trestles where they are grown in sacks in the water; it can also manoeuvre around on land to transport the oysters back along the mud flats to their home farm a couple miles away. It’s a fairly new vehicle, which they had built in France at La Tremblade to replace their old land rover and trailer. It makes life easier and less labour intensive and, with fewer journeys back and forth, more environmentally friendly.

Loch Ryan oysters

David and Tristan Hugh-Jones have been well-known names on the oyster scene in London for as long as I can remember. They took control of the largest natural native oyster beds in the country up on Loch Ryan in Stranraer, Scotland, in 1996, which have been fished since they were given to The Wallace family by King William 111 in 1701. The natives are dredged from September to April and are often among the first to appear on London restaurant menus.

I spent a few hours on the oyster dredger with Tristan and the crew on a rainy autumn Sunday. Although these may well be the largest purely native beds in the UK, the yield of sellable oysters was remarkably small by the time they had been dredged and hand graded on board by the crew and Tristan. The other 90 per cent or so get loaded into baskets to be re-layed in different parts of the loch to grow and naturally re-spawn. Some of these oysters will take up to 3 to 5 years to reach market size and in the meantime provide good surfaces for new spat to settle on. Many oyster farms around the country will buy in oyster seed and juvenile oysters to grow, but on Loch Ryan they just do their own thing. We sunk a few fine fresh-out-of-the-water natives for lunch on the boat, washed down with, ironically, a bottle of well chosen Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc. It was all that was needed to go with the oysters – no Tabasco, lemon or shallot vinegar. To my mind, natives should be eaten for what they are.

Portland oysters

When I’m at the Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis, I love it when customers ask where the oysters are from. I just point across Lyme Bay on a clear day towards Portland and say, ‘Just over there.’ Even if it’s not clear, I still point at the sea mist and wait for their reaction!

After a long absence, oyster farming on the Fleet lagoon, which lies behind Chesil Beach and runs between Abbotsbury and Wyke Regis, started up again around 30 years ago and Nigel Bloxham took over the oyster farm in 2005. Nigel trained as a chef and has a total passion for the fruits of the sea. When he took over the oyster beds, Nigel inherited a wooden beach café, which he has sympathetically revamped with pink frilly umbrellas outside and straw hats dotted around for when the sun is out. Nigel’s Crab House Café has become a local destination for simple seafood dining. Nigel and I look at each other’s establishments as an enhancement for the area, rather than local competition. He supplies us with oysters and we eat and drink in each other’s establishments, exchanging fishy stories over a drink or two.

The oyster farm that Nigel inherited was rather run down at the time. To protect the oysters from the strong current of the tidal Fleet estuary – and for ease of harvesting – the rock oysters where grown in nets on old metal trestles. Nigel has replaced all the rusted old supports with wooden ones, which avoids the obvious potential pollution.

More recently, Nigel has been experimenting with new Australian plastic-meshed baskets – neat little things that rock on the trestles as the tide agitates them, so the oysters don’t attach themselves to each other. We occasionally take small half-sized oysters from Nigel, which we call Portland pearls; these are a perfect size for handing around at cocktail parties.

Brownsea Island oysters

Unlike many of the oyster beds around the country, those of Othniel Oysters, which are situated just off Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, are not actually visible. So Gary Wordsworth harvests his oysters with a mechanical dredger – an eco-harvester, designed by himself, which gently moves over the oyster beds bringing the oysters up on a conveyor belt onto the deck, where they are then graded by hand by Gary.

It’s a simple two-man operation harvesting the oysters and getting them to Gary’s HQ, called Number 3, which is the old Sandbanks Ferry, now anchored close to the oyster beds. Gary managed to persuade the harbour master to let him use the anchored-up car ferry for his business as it was out of sight of residential properties and a seaworthy, environmentally-friendly enterprise.

Number 3 has been kitted out with everything for oyster processing, including spare parts to get his eco-harvester back up and running in an emergency. Surrounding Gary’s old ferry are baskets of graded oysters awaiting shipment off to nearby Pete Miles’ Dorset Oysters depuration plant where they are purified for 42 hours. Pete is also a local fisherman and has a fish restaurant too.

Along with the natives and standard sized rock oysters, Gary also harvests a lot of very large rocks, which he sells to Asia; these are ideal for our oyster stew.

How to shuck an oyster

Lay the oyster in a folded cloth on a flat surface with the flat part of the shell uppermost and hold it firmly. Force the point of an oyster knife into the hinge of the shell and carefully move the knife from side to side to prise open the shell.

Run the knife along the top of the flat shell, twisting it slightly, until you reach the muscle that attaches the oyster to the shell. Sever this and lift off the top shell.

Remove any fragments of shell from the oyster flesh, but be careful to retain the juices. The oyster will still be attached to the lower shell by the rest of the muscle. Most chefs cut through this and turn the oyster over but I prefer to leave this to the customer.

Serve on a bed of seaweed or crushed ice, with lemon wedges and/or Tabasco sauce.

Recipes in this Chapter

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