Posts Tagged ‘restaurants food cuisine’

London — By Andrea Kirkby on November 12, 2009 at 2:04 pm
Filed under: featuredarticle, restaurants food cuisine

Tastes of Britain: Whitstable oysters

Parma ham, Camembert cheese, champagne – and now Whitstable oysters. All of these are protected by legislation; something the French and Italians have been doing for years, but that we seem only just to have caught on to in the UK.

whitstable-oyster

Oysters have been cultivated in Kent since the Romans, who built forts along this coast, for instance at Reculver not far to the west. The shallow, and once more clean, waters of the Thames estuary are just the kind of place oysters like to live, and the beds at Whitstable and Seasalter produce some of the best in Europe.

Production and harvesting is in the hands of the Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers, set up to defend the trade in the eighteenth century when ‘foreigners’ from further along the coast started pilfering from the beds. To be a Whitstable Native according to the rules, the oyster has to be grown and harvested between Shoeburyness and the North Foreland – though you can eat it anywhere you like, so you can get Whitstable oysters in London.

The oysters are raised in a hatchery – a technique that was pioneered here. Then they spend three to five years in the oyster beds – and end up as absolutely huge oysters, at least to judge by the ones I’ve had.

Whitstable makes a big thing of its oysters, with an oyster festival in mid July – the wrong time for eating natives, since the season runs from  September to April (‘when there’s an R in the month’), but it happened to be the one time in the year when the Free Fishers were all on holiday. There’s morris dancing, plus crab fishing and oyster eating competitions. (In my experience, it’s not the eating that’s the problem – it’s the opening.) There are also numerous opportunities to buy and eat the oysters  in Whitstable – though the original Whitstable Oyster Fishery restaurant got panned in the Telegraph.

Now they will tell you, down in Kent, that the Whitstable oyster is the best in England. It isn’t. Colchester Natives are the best. (I’ll admit to being biased, since I am myself a Colchester native.) They’re a different variety from Whitstable’s, rounder and meatier. But they don’t yet have PGI (protected geographical indication, the legal protection that Whitstable has).

But whether you fancy Whitstable or Colchester oysters, they’re a marvellous British food – and well worth trying, whether you go down to the coast to try them ‘on site’, or buy them at Borough Market or Wheeler’s fish bar in London.

Photo by adactio on flickr


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