Pride of Place
- Wednesday 17 September 2008
If oysters were, at one time, a staple food of the poor, it looks as if they may become the province of the rich after 80% of France’s young oysters, due to be harvested in 2010, were dramatically wiped out this summer.
Whether it was yet another by-product of global warming, or a mystery virus not yet established, in two to three years, oysters may be a luxury few can afford.
Ironically, the news came just after I’d spent some time with London’s most successful oyster merchant, Robin Hancock of Wright Brothers, trying to establish precisely what the difference is between oysters from different habitats.
Wright Brothers, which he runs with his brother-in-law Ben Wright, supplies shellfish to top restaurants such as Scott’s, J Sheekey and Bibendum, as well as their
own oyster bar in Borough Market.
The general perception is that natives are vastly superior to rock or Pacific oysters,
but that’s no longer quite the clear-cut distinction it once was.
True, they are different species with different reproductive systems, with natives being matured for longer and thus, arguably, having a finer flavour. But there are subtle differences between rocks, which have much to offer the oyster connoisseur.
As well as being less expensive and more widely available, rocks also don’t have an off season (whereas natives cannot be harvested from May to the end of August).
The waters in which oysters are reared make a big difference to their consistency and their taste, according to Hancock. ‘An oyster’s diet is based on the algae and plankton it filters out of the water,’ he explains.
‘Deeper, more tidal waters will have a different population of algae from a shallow estuary.
The minerals in West Mersea are different from those in Helford in Cornwall, where you get an almost tinny flavour.’
Another factor affecting the taste is the salinity of the water and that depends on what Hancock euphemistically refers to as the ‘run-off’ (discharges out to sea) from the locality. ‘There’s lovely water off the Scottish hills, for instance.’
An example of a very particular habitat is the Marennes-Oléron, off the west coast of France.
There, the oysters, which have their own AC, are finished in a claire or open lake that contains a mixture of fresh and salt water. They are particularly rich in algae of which one – blue navicule – gives the oysters a distinctive greenish tinge.
Different grades depend on the stocking density and length of the affinage (maturing time). Fine de Claire oysters have a density of 20 per square metre and are held for four
weeks in the claire.
A Spéciale de Claire has to have between five and 10 oysters per square metre and have been matured for at least two months, while a Pousse en Claire has a density of three oysters per square metre and is left for six months.
To illustrate his point about the effects of terroir, Hancock arranged a tasting of six different rock oysters. At first glance, they looked much the same with their characteristically elongated shell, but on closer inspection, the flesh inside varied quite considerably in size and colour.
They were also markedly different in taste. The Spéciales de Claires were, indeed, quite
distinctive, with a sweet, clean, almost nutty flavour. They were much less salty and
mineral than the next in line, a Cumbrae from the west coast of Scotland, which
Hancock romantically described as like ‘kissing the ocean’.
The Lindisfarne oysters, which were reared near Holy Island off the Northumberland coast, were quite similar, with a strong marine character, though Hancock described them as ‘cucumbery’.
Their own Duchy of Cornwall rock oysters from the Helford River in Cornwall were quite different – much more savoury and nutty with a lingering aftertaste (and surprisingly good with young claret.
Next up was a Maldon rock, from the Blackwater River in Essex and produced by seventh-generation oyster farmer Richard Howard. It was much milder in flavour (‘woody,’ pronounced Hancock) but so large and plump, it tends to be the one they cook with at the restaurant.
Finally, an Irish oyster from Carlingford Lough in County Down was, perhaps unsurprisingly, more like the Scottish Cumbrae, though more fine-textured and elegant, despite the fact that I was tasting it in high summer.
So what of the future for ostreiculture, as oyster farming is called? Hancock acknowledges that the French have a serious problem – ‘There are always mortalities in summer, but not to the extent of this year’ – and points out that oysters have been beset by successive
plagues over the centuries.
‘No-one quite knows what’s happening, whether it’s watershock from fluctuating water temperatures, or simply the baby oysters ingesting too much plankton, but I’d enjoy French oysters while you can.’ And British ones too, I’d suggest.
Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House,
11 Stoney Street, London SE1 9AD
Tel: 020 7403 9554 www.wrightbros.eu.com