The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
A brief masterclass for the bivalve-curious
Delicious and versatile, oysters are nothing to be afraid of – you just need to know how to coax them open
It’s not often that the British weather comes to my rescue, but this week it might help explain my reluctance to reopen The Sportsman for outdoor dining in April.
As I am sure you are aware, pubs and restaurants have been allowed to serve food outdoors since Monday. I can understand that everybody was dying to get things moving again. But I wasn’t so sure it would be such a good idea for us in Seasalter.
We are located on the edge of a salt marsh at the mouth of the Thames: if you had a mind to, you could sail in a straight line from the beach right outside the pub to the Netherlands, Denmark or Norway. The same winds that once allowed the Vikings to raid the east coast now batter relentlessly at our walls for several months a year, bringing plenty of water and salt with them. We had the outside of the building painted a few years ago, and within months the paint was peeling off again.
We had a few days of good weather at the end of March, and everyone was fooled into thinking that this was the beginning of an early summer. I was fooled myself, and even fired up our new outdoor wood-burning oven to cook some pizzas for my brother, who came to see us for the first time since Christmas. But I think it will be better to wait for a few more weeks, until we can open and do the job properly.
As well as a recipe this week, I thought I’d offer a brief masterclass on an ingredient that’s been absolutely crucial to us at the Sportsman since we opened – an ingredient that is grown and harvested practically within sight of the pub.
There are two types of oysters eaten in the UK: the rock oyster and the native. The rock is the more common as it is easily farmed on the seabed and is better at surviving the ups and downs of weather and disease. It is usually a light grey colour and has an elongated shell. The native oyster is the one that grows wild in our estuaries, and is smaller, browner, rounder and often very difficult to open.
The rock oyster is softer in texture and milder in taste, whereas the native is denser, with an almost metallic flavour. The native is the sort which is only available from September to April (ie when there is an “r” in the month) leaving it free to spawn during the summer months.
Don’t let yourself be bullied by that type of person who insists that you must eat your oysters unadorned and raw: they are great to play around with and are delicious cooked. I could write a whole book on the subject and how versatile they are. As for storage, they keep well in the fridge with a damp cloth over them, with the flat shell on top. If the shells open and don’t close when tapped then they are dead and shouldn’t be eaten, but if they’re good they should last for several days.
Before I became a chef I had real trouble opening oysters at home. I wish somebody had told me you could put them in a low oven for five minutes – just long enough to kill them, so the
“meat” of the oyster (in fact, the muscle that holds the two shells together) isn’t fighting your attempts to open the shell any more.
Then, you simply slide your knife between the two shells at the hinge (the pointy bit), and then cut the flat top shell away from the muscle. Once you’ve opened your oysters, you can even put them back in the fridge to chill, then present them to your guests as if you were a champion shucker.
I said this has to be brief because this will be my last regular column for The Telegraph. Over the past six years I have drawn on my own evolution from an office worker and keen home cook to a Michelin-starred chef running one of the top restaurants in the country.
My aim was to share recipes that were ambitious, but practical and unpretentious, and to introduce them without the flowery Google-inspired hyperbole that characterises so much food writing at the moment. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the columns and making the food, and that our paths may cross again. In the meantime, I’ve got a pub to open – just not quite yet.