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Sibton Park

Kent, England

Kentish oysters: well worth shelling out for

Posted by Jonathan Broom on May 04, 2018
Kentish oysters: well worth shelling out for

If ever a ‘product’ has been slowly but surely repositioned – rebranded, if you like – it has to be the humble oyster. A hundred and fifty years ago, and even into the 20th Century: little more than an ingredient in a beef-and-oyster pie, food (alongside jellied eels) for East Londoners on a day out at the seaside (a lazy cliché, I know – but you get my drift). Today: an out-and-out luxury, served on the shell alongside a glass or two of champagne. Food of celebration.

Not so humble, then.

“Poverty and oysters always seem to go together,” wrote Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers, his first novel, published in the 1830s. Beef-and-oyster pie was the food of the poor – and the poorer you were, the more oysters you put in. Oysters were a cheap source of protein and minerals. And they were plentiful, back then.

So what drove the mollusc upmarket? Actually it wasn’t really an exercise in rebranding – there was no mustard-keen team of young marketeers holding brainstorming workshops. The answer was simple: price. So popular were oysters that the oyster beds were fished out; and as the price rose, so the bivalve became a luxury foodstuff.

And far too expensive to put in a pie. Much better, surely, served fresh, as it is, with perhaps a squeeze of lemon or a dash of hot sauce and accompanied by a glass of something chilled and sparkling.

Native oysters are edible from September through to April – in other words, when there’s an ‘R’ in the month. They breed between May and August (during which time they (a) are illegal to harvest under the terms of the Shellfish Act, and (b) taste disgusting) and take four years to mature. However, the Pacific or rock oyster, introduced to these shores some 30 years ago, reaches edible size in two years, is usually cheaper, and can be eaten all year round. Connoisseurs would have you believe that the native oyster is superior due to its firmer texture – but it’s debatable.

What with Britain being an island (hold the front page!), oysters are farmed all around the British coast – and a non-aficionado (that would be me) might say that they all make for good eating. However, experts would opine that the true home of the perfect oyster is Whitstable on the North Kent coast, just 18 miles north of Sibton Park – a charming, vibrant seaside town whose centre plays host to some lovely restaurants, pubs and ‘one-off’ boutiques, and whose seafront and harbour is home to a still-active fishing fleet.

The marine provender in Whitstable is not limited to oysters... but it’s what the town is famous for. Dating back to Norman times, the Whitstable Oyster Festival takes place every July – during the off-season for native oysters. The reason for the timing is that during the season the oystermen are far too busy, so they delay their celebrations until the summer. Presumably what marked the festivals of yesteryear must have been an absence of the ‘star of the show’: it is only fairly recently that one has actually been able to eat oysters at the festival, given that rock oysters only reached Europe some three decades ago. Prior to that, folks must have either gone without, or eaten the nasty-tasting breeding bivalves. Possible, I suppose – the Shellfish Act only dates back to 1967.

Anyway, enough of such ruminations: if you’re lucky enough to be holidaying at Sibton Park in July, the festival is well worth a visit.

But throughout the year, oysters are widely available all over town. For the best and the freshest, try one of the seafood shacks dotted along the seafront. A dozen Pacific oysters will set you back some 12 quid – they’re about £1 a go. Native oysters (in season only, of course) will cost about half as much again – so, £18 for 12.

Not cheap – but just the kind of luxury to make your holiday that little bit extra-special.

As to the mollusc’s much-vaunted aphrodisiac qualities... some things are surely best left undiscussed!

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Jonathan Broom
Author: Jonathan Broom

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