Pearls, Princesses and Royals
PUBLISHED: 10:42 25 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:32 20 February 2013
Romance is in the air and oysters are on the menu as Christine McFadden discovers Dorset's most sensual seafood. Photography by Scott Morrison
Romance is in the air and oysters are on the menu as Christine McFadden discovers Dorsets most sensual seafood. Photography by Scott Morrison
With St Valentines Day approaching and thoughts possibly turning to a candlelit dinner deux, what will be on your menu? Well, oysters are a good start. Plump and glistening, sweet and moist, they slip down the throat in the most sensual way. Legendary lover Casanova was said to down 50 for breakfast, and famously boasted of seducing a virgin by slipping a raw oyster into her mouth.
With such thoughts in mind, I set off to the Portland Oyster Farm at the Fleet Lagoon near Weymouth. Tucked behind Chesil Beach, the Fleet is the largest saline lagoon in the UK and one of the most important marine nature reserves in north-west Europe. That said, there is something quietly understated about the place. A few ramshackle beach huts are dotted along the shore, shielded by stretches of windswept tamarisk and gorse, working boats bob by a rusting pontoon, and stacks of oyster baskets lie by a wire fence. The silence is broken only by flocks of screeching Brent geese that swirl so close you can hear their wings flapping.
It was here that I met David Scott who takes care of the farm. He was just about to leap onto his raft to do some repair work to the oyster beds, but was happy to spend time chatting about his favourite mollusc. There isnt much David
doesnt know about oysters and on weekdays he is usually around to answer visitors questions.
David and his son-in-law, Nigel Bloxham, took over the site in 2005. They cleared the remains of the previous oyster farm and installed an eco-friendly system of timber posts and rails that support mesh hanging baskets in which the oysters develop. David explained that the baskets rock with the ebb and flow of the tide, and this rolls the oysters around as if they were on the sea bed. This, in turn, results in a smoother shell (an advantage when shucking) and fatter meat. Nigel likens the difference to that of a battery-raised chicken and a traditional free-range one.
An accomplished chef and fisherman, Nigel also set up the Crab House Caf. Efficiently managed by his son Charlie, the caf is housed in a quirky weather-beaten shack a stones throw from the oyster beds. With breathtaking coastal views and fresh oysters and other seafood on the doorstep, it has justly been called the hidden pearl of the South West.
The caf sits within an equally quirky garden, created by Nigels parents. Ever conscious of food miles, they planted fruit and vegetables to supply the kitchen with seasonal produce. At the time of my visit, beets, celery, leeks, rhubarb and sturdy herbs such as rosemary, sage and thyme were still thriving despite the winter chill. A vigilant scarecrow, complete with a basket of oyster shells, presides over the scene.
David and Nigel grow the Pacific or rock oyster (Crassostrea gigas) rather than the European native or flat oyster (Ostrea edulis). Though the latter are more highly prized, the Pacific type is less prone to disease and does not spawn in cold European waters. This, in turn, means the quality remains consistent and the oysters can be sold year-round, rather than from September to April only.
The oysters are sourced part-grown from the Channel Islands, and left to develop in the hanging baskets for 712 months. Once they reach a marketable size, they are classified as Pearls, Princesses or Royals. Pearls weigh in at a dainty 50g, while the massive and sought-after Royals reach 120g or more. Immediately after harvesting, they are stored in a purification tank for 48 hours while a constant flow of infra-red-treated water washes over them to destroy Escherichia.coli.
Oysters tend to be known by the name of the location in which they grow rather than the biological variety. The system makes sense, since habitat is crucial to flavour. Portland oysters get their characteristic sweet and slightly briny tang from the mix of chalky waters that flow down from the Dorset hills and the seawater in the Fleet.
The Fleet has been home to oyster farms intermittently since Victorian times; in those days they were so plentiful and cheap that not only could the poor afford to eat them, they were even used as animal fodder. Prodigious amounts went into soups a recipe from Lady Harriet St Clairs Dainty Dishes specifies 80 oysters for just five servings. They were also used to bulk out meat in gigantic beef and oyster pies served at large gatherings. Dishes such as oyster fritters and oysters skewered with bits of bacon became common. By the 20th century supplies dwindled because of over-fishing and disease, and oysters became a luxury item. It was then that the ritual of eating them raw in the half-shell became fashionable.
Before David sails away to deal with his repairs, I ask him for his view on oysters and aphrodisiacs. Not as good as Viagra, he says, his face crinkling into a knowing smile. Meanwhile, Charlie tells me there are rumours that strawberries are a better bet!
At the Crab House they serve raw oysters with a slice of lemon or lime, a drop of Tabasco and a drizzle of shallot vinaigrette. For this, mix 3 finely chopped shallots, 120ml red wine vinegar, 1 shredded bay leaf and 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves in a screw-top jar. Preferably leave in the fridge overnight to allow the flavours to infuse. Shake well before spooning over open oysters. If you are new to oysters, or prefer them cooked, then try Nigels favourite recipe Oysters Italiano from head chef Adam Foster. Charlie also suggests giving them a quick sizzle in butter with some sea beet or chard leaves.
Oysters are an aphrodisiac fact or fiction?
Of all the foods claimed to be aphrodisiacs, oysters are one of the very few that have solid scientific evidence to back up the claims. They contain two unusual amino acids D-aspartic acid and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) that have been jokingly referred to as speed for lovers. And with good reason they encourage the body to release the sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone. Oysters are also the richest animal source of zinc crucial for a high sperm count, and for general wellbeing. Despite these impeccable credentials, its still not clear how much of these substances oysters contain and, more important, how many oysters you would need to eat to make any real difference.
Oysters must be eaten alive, or cooked while alive. David tells
me they can be kept for up to two days after collection from the farm but stresses the importance of keeping them cool but not chilled. Dont put them in the fridge or on ice otherwise they will open up and die. He also points out that oysters should not be stored in water, either salty or fresh.
Open oysters should be tapped on the shell; it will close if the oyster is alive. Any that dont respond should be discarded.
Oysters Italiano with Pesto and Parmesan
6 Portland oysters
1 tbsp good-quality red or green pesto
3 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Open the oysters, taking care not to lose any of the liquid in the shell. Place them carefully on a roasting tray. Add teaspoon of pesto to each oyster, followed by tablespoon of parmesan. Bake in the oven for 6 minutes or until golden brown.
Portland oysters are available from the farm most days, but its advisable to phone in advance. The Crab House Caf reopens on 9 February 2011 after its annual winter break. Meanwhile, bookings will be picked up by answer phone and confirmed by e-mail.
Portland Oyster Farm and Crab House Caf Ferrymans Way, Portland Road, Wyke Regis, DT4 9YU 01305 788867, www.crabhousecafe.co.uk