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Aw, shucks: How the oyster became London’s latest it-food

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 1 day ago David Ellis
13_09_2019_Seabird_Shot13_015.jpg © Seabird 13_09_2019_Seabird_Shot13_015.jpg

Oysters are on the up. Last month, Seabird, the rooftop restaurant not far from the south bank, broke their own record: “We sold more oysters in September than we’ve ever done before,” says Toheed Arshad, the general manager, “At just under 9000, it was nearly one for every guest we had in.”

The rise has been slow but steady; two decades ago, they were on a handful of menus but still something most shied away from, uncertain about the flavour, turned off by the texture and nervous after all the food poisoning stories.

But things began to change as diners plucked up their courage. “Over the past six years, we’ve seen a steady rise in the popularity of our oysters,” says Michael Harrison of fashionable fishmonger Fin and Flounder, “We’re seeing people of all ages and backgrounds stopping for a few at all times of day, all throughout the week — even kids on the way home from school!”

On the up, then, but democratised too, just as they once were. Oysters presently have a reputation far removed from their not-so-distant past — when once pubs stacked shucked piles high on bar tops to steady punters, encouraging them to drink a little more.

The world is yours: cooked oysters at Wiltons (Wiltons) © Provided by Evening Standard The world is yours: cooked oysters at Wiltons (Wiltons)

“In the 19th century, streets like Broadway Market would have served thousands to the working class people who lived in the area,” says Harrison. “But by the 20th century, stocks had been depleted and they became expensive and in turn an exclusive, luxurious food for the rich we know today.”

One of London’s oldest restaurants — and one of its most upmarket, these days, too — is Wiltons, which began in those rather humbler times. “Wiltons started as a shellfish-mongers with a cart in 1742,” says house manager Michael Stoke. Still, their reputation grew quickly, resulting in a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria in 1868. That dichotomy sums up the state of play back then: while humans have shucked and guzzled back oysters since Neolithic times, by the 19th century they were the preserve of either the very wealthy or their servants, with the Government ensuring their prices were kept low.

Things changed when London’s sewers were routed to be by the oyster beds, in the misguided belief that oysters’ ability to purify water would help the Thames. Oysters do filter water, and are good for the marine environment, but their power has a limit — and the bad water meant cases of food poisoning. A reputation soon followed, and so they slipped from menus, until they’d almost entirely disappeared; still there at J Sheekey or Wiltons or Wheelers, and sometimes made a star (Marco Pierre White’s tagliatelle of oysters with caviar was the stuff of legend), but largely getting swerved.

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It changed about a decade ago as a wave of chefs began to champion them once again (with the sewer oyster beds long untouched). Among them were Mark Hix and Richard Corrigan, who serves great dishes of them at Bentley’s. “I can think of nothing more enjoyable than sitting down to a plateful of these wild beauties sourced from the British and Irish Isles,” Corrigan beams.

 (Bentley's Oyster Bar) © Provided by Evening Standard (Bentley's Oyster Bar)

While the likes of Wiltons offer them in just about every configuration — “cooked, we do them in a variety of ways including Rockefeller [with butter, parsley and breadcrumbs]; Kilpatrick [with bacon and Worcestershire sauce]; Angels on Horseback [wrapped in bacon]; cooked with scrambled eggs and caviar; fried; or baked with with cream, cheese and a splash of sherry, à la Christian Dior” says Stoke — they also serve them raw, the style that lately has been drawing in the crowds, whether rock oysters (which have a milder taste, and are available year round) or natives (these are stronger, and, says Stoke, “the old adage is true — they should only be served served in months with an “r” in the name, ie September to April”).

 (Seabird) © Provided by Evening Standard (Seabird)

“There’s no right way to eat an oyster,” says Seabird’s Ashad, “Just make sure it’s detached from the shell before you tip it into your mouth, but all good shuckers will do this for you. Some folk prefer to use a tiny fork, some chew before swallowing; do whatever you want. If you want the truest taste of the oyster though, avoid drowning it in hot sauce or mignonette. You don’t need it.”

I can think of nothing more enjoyable than sitting down to a plateful of these wild beauties

Corrigan agrees: “When it comes to dressing natives, keep it simple I say. A squeeze of lemon and a little freshly cracked black pepper allows the beautiful flavour of the oysters to shine through.”

Setting is everything, adds Pepijn De Visscher of Soho’s new hit restaurant, The Seafood Bar. “Try combining it with the sun on the beach, Friday evenings after a busy work week, or a Sunday afternoon with jazz playing in the background…”

Harrison goes one further: “For me, three oysters served straight up first thing in the morning can’t be beaten.

“Whatever you put on them, take your time and savour the experience.”

And, while serving the shells on a plate of ice is traditional, Harrison recommends trying one at room temperature to “really taste” it.

Oysters can live to over a century

 (The Seafood Bar) © Provided by Evening Standard (The Seafood Bar)

Oysters do feel very on brand for 2021: they are, De Visscher says, “the most sustainable meat you can eat”, while Harrison adds that they’re “gender fluid. They usually start life as males and end as females.”

Still, no matter the year, context or politics, Corrigan, De Visscher, Harrison, Arshad and Stoke are all in agreement on one thing — they go well with a drink. Champagne is a natural pairing (ultra-dry is best, advises Stoke), as is white wine: for Corrigan, a chilled glass of Chablis, for Harrison, a dry Reisling is the thing. Otherwise, Guinness is traditional, its bitterness offering a lovely counterpoint to the salt of the oysters. Dry cider “especially on a summer’s day” is another pick for Harrison. Those going dry meanwhile, says Stoke, can take them with sparkling water with a slice of lemon.

We tend to eat oysters at about three to five years old, though left to themselves they can clock in a century; the old oyster shells end up broken down and washed up on beaches — what we think of as shingle. Oysters are around us more than we realise, then. And now, as demand sores, they’re happily washing up on our plates ever more often, too. The world, then, is theirs.

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