Scot­tish flavour: sea pearls

Sunday Herald Life - - DRINK - By Shirley Spear Shirley Spear is owner of The Three Chim­neys and The House Over-By on the Isle of Skye www. three­chm­neys.co.uk

THE Ro­mans were in­cred­i­ble en­gi­neers, but imag­ine how they would have mar­velled at the sight of the Queens­ferry Cross­ing, ablaze with coloured lights, span­ning the River Forth in one im­mense, grace­ful curve sus­pended by an in­tri­cate cat’s cra­dle of ca­bles. From their van­tage point a few miles down­river at Cra­mond, it would have seemed as awe­some as a feat of the gods.

The Firth of Forth has long been a cru­cial ship­ping route and fish­ing ground. The Ro­mans didn’t travel much fur­ther north from here, but they re­garded the na­tive mus­sel and oys­ter beds of Cra­mond Is­land as a vi­tal nat­u­ral re­source. Their fort, at the mouth of the River Al­mond, de­fended the Firth and its coast­line.

Oys­ters were eaten then, and in sub­se­quent cen­turies, as nu­tri­tious ev­ery­day food. Some may have re­garded them as the food of the gods and the Ro­mans ex­ported them in sea­wa­ter tanks to other parts of Scot­land, as well as to far-off Euro­pean cities.

Cra­mond Is­land was a pro­lific, highly re­garded oys­ter fish­ery for many cen­turies pro­duc­ing 30 mil­lion oys­ters an­nu­ally at its peak. By the late 1800s, how­ever, pro­duc­tion be­gan to col­lapse due to over-fish­ing, dis­ease and pol­lu­tion.

The oys­ter be­came an ex­pen­sive lux­ury. Pro­duc­tion ceased al­to­gether in 1920. Re­search car­ried out in the River Forth, a few years be­fore the first road bridge opened in 1964, de­clared the na­tive oys­ter ex­tinct.

Oys­ters were un­known to me as a child grow­ing up in Scot­land. After mov­ing to Lon­don, I swal­lowed my first raw oys­ter with trep­i­da­tion, pre­fer­ring by far, the Black Vel­vet I was drink­ing with it. A few years later, I was deftly open­ing dozens of oys­ters ev­ery day, for cus­tomers in our Skye restau­rant.

Oys­ters have be­come syn­ony­mous with Skye since a lo­cal man, Kenny Bain, be­gan cul­ti­vat­ing them com­mer­cially in Loch Har­port. I re­mem­ber the evening Kenny ap­proached me in the kitchen, fol­low­ing his meal in the restau­rant, in­quir­ing if I would like to buy his oys­ters for the menu. I read­ily ac­cepted, and 30 years on, The Three Chim­neys re­mains a cus­tomer, though the busi­ness is now run by Kenny’s son-in-law, Paul McG­lynn, known lo­cally as the Oys­ter­man.

Paul has taken the oper­a­tion to new heights, with his hugely suc­cess­ful Oys­ter Shed, sell­ing and serv­ing Skye seafood and other lo­cal spe­cial­i­ties. He will demon­strate how to shuck an oys­ter and even lend you an oys­ter knife for a small fee. A visit there is a great ex­pe­ri­ence.

Oys­ters were widely sold in Ed­in­burgh’s tav­erns and oys­ter­cel­lars, along with a jug of ale. Re­cent ex­ca­va­tions have re­vealed whole mid­dens of oys­ter shells, denot­ing the long-lost floors of an­cient places of rev­elry, good food and com­pan­ion­ship. Steak and oys­ter pie – also known as Mus­sel­burgh pie – was a favourite dish of this era. The abun­dant oys­ter and mus­sel beds around In­veresk, also the site of a Ro­man Fort, sup­plied the city tav­erns and, over time, the town be­came known as Mus­sel­burgh and re­mains so to­day.

Sev­eral oys­ter and mus­sel farms are in full-time oper­a­tion around the coast of Scot­land, par­tic­u­larly in the cold, clear wa­ters of the west High­lands and Is­lands. There are moves afoot to rein­tro­duce na­tive oys­ter beds and to the Dornoch Firth. At Loch Ryan, by Stran­raer in the south-west, na­tive Euro­pean oys­ter beds are al­ready wellestab­lished.

The more com­monly cul­ti­vated Pa­cific oys­ter is teardrop shaped, while the na­tive oys­ters are al­most round. Pa­cific oys­ters are avail­able all-year-round, but na­tive ones are only avail­able be­tween Septem­ber and April.

Dur­ing the re­main­ing months, oys­ters are breed­ing and the tex­ture of the meat be­comes soft and a lit­tle less palat­able. Next week­end, Stran­raer will stage Scot­land’s very first Oys­ter Fes­ti­val, which will in­clude an oys­ter­shuck­ing com­pe­ti­tion. A drive down to Dum­fries and Gal­loway would be very worth­while, es­pe­cially if you have not ex­plored the beau­ti­ful area be­fore.

HAL­IBUT WITH OYS­TER SAUCE (For 4 serv­ings)

For the sauce: 12 fresh oys­ters 575ml good qual­ity fish stock 275ml dry white wine 3 ba­nana shal­lots 50g but­ton mush­rooms 50g un­salted but­ter 275ml fresh dou­ble cream For the hal­ibut: 4 pieces of hal­ibut fil­let, ap­prox 150g per per­son (aim for fish to be of sim­i­lar thick­ness) 12 fresh Scot­tish oys­ters 4 slices of 1 lemon, plus the juice of half 25g un­salted but­ter 2 sprigs fresh pars­ley 1 bay leaf A sprig of fresh fen­nel, chervil, lemon balm – or all three Method Pre­pare in­gre­di­ents ahead of cook­ing. Al­ter­na­tively, pre­pare sauce in ad­vance and re-heat just be­fore the fish is cooked. 1. For the sauce, shuck the oys­ters, re­move the flesh and cap­ture all the juice. Place in a small bowl and re­frig­er­ate. Peel and finely chop the shal­lots. Wash and dry the mush­rooms. Chop finely. Melt the but­ter in a wide saucepan. Add the shal­lots and cook un­til soft. Add your mush­rooms and stir to­gether un­til soft. Pour over white wine and bring to the boil. Re­tain a high heat to en­able the wine to evap­o­rate un­til it has al­most dis­ap­peared, leav­ing a syrupy con­sis­tency with the veg­eta­bles. 2. Pour over the fish stock and bring back to boil­ing point. Sim­mer on a medium heat un­til the liq­uid has re­duced by half. 3. Add the dou­ble cream and re­turn to just over sim­mer­ing point. Main­tain this heat un­til the sauce be­gins to coat the back of a wooden spoon and thicken slightly. 4. Strain sauce through a fine sieve. Dis­card the con­tents of the sieve and re­tain all juices. Re­turn to a clean saucepan. 5. For the hal­ibut, but­ter a shal­low, oven­proof dish and pre­heat oven to 190°C. Lay the lemon slices and herbs on the base to­gether with a sprin­kling of sea salt and pep­per. Place fish on top, sprin­kle with lemon juice and add a tiny dab of but­ter on top. Fi­nally, sprin­kle the fish with a pinch of salt. Cover and seal the dish with a lid of alu­minium foil, en­sur­ing the foil does not touch the sur­face of the fish. Place in cen­tre of oven and bake for 15 min­utes. 6. Lift the cooked fish por­tions on to each plate, plac­ing on a lightly cooked por­tion of green veg­eta­bles of your choice. I used sal­sify in the pho­to­graph, but fine beans are also ideal. 7. Just be­fore serv­ing, add the well­strained oys­ter juice to the sauce and stir. Place the oys­ters care­fully in the sauce for half a minute at most, be­fore lift­ing from the sauce and plac­ing on the plate along­side the cooked hal­ibut and green veg­eta­bles. Strain the sauce again to en­sure no shell or grit is present. I use a fine tea strainer for this job, but you could strain the sauce through a square of muslin. The sauce should not need sea­son­ing, as the oys­ter juice is salty, but check be­fore serv­ing. To fin­ish, pour the hot sauce over the oys­ters and serve.

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