Oysters, once food of the working class in the nineteenth-century and now considered elitist, difficult to eat, slimy, snot-like. It’s going to be a tricky sell. Especially at £1.50 a slurp. But the more we eat, the more we are conserving a mineral-rich food that is a source of pilgrimage over the Channel in the oyster mecca of Cancale, Brittany. Which makes them practically religious.
Oysters are packed to their pearly tips with iron, calcium, zinc, selenium, vitamins A, B12, are low in calories and research suggests they trigger the release of sex hormones. With a few chews (don’t swallow whole, it’s not a shot of tequila), you essentially get an injection of umami to the taste buds (sweet salt liquid), combined with the fleshy texture of something that looks like a sweetbread but has the more robust bite of a very tender piece of liver. I would hedge my bets that all offal lovers are avid oyster eaters.
Broadly speaking, we have two types in Cornwall. The Pacifics, a large farmed variety available all year round and the smaller but more complex tasting Fal native oyster, harvested under sail from the only remaining wild oysters beds in the world, available September to April. By eating more of the native species, from Chris Ranger of cornishnativeoysters.co.uk, you are actually conserving a troubled species. The Fal oyster is under fire from all angles: pollution, overfishing and disease, as well as plans for a cruise liner terminal.
The natives are dredged (the dredge is only three-feet wide) from a 500-hectare bed in the Carrick Roads waterway, a designated area of conservation where fresh water from Bodmin Moor (the source of the river Fal) meets the sea. To make harvesting sustainable, fishermen here have agreed to only use oar or sail powered boats, but with the recent PDO award or Protected Designation of Origin status, the harvesting and protection of the Fal native will become even more rigorous.
The summer Rock Oyster Festival showcases the cultivated Pacifics: plumper whiter oysters farmed by the Marshall family at Porthilly Farm. Topped with a few drops of shallot vinegar, a glass of local man Mark Hellyar’s Wild White and it feels like France has come to you. Brittany, Cornwall’s long-lost Celtic cousin, is arguably home to the world’s best and most reasonably priced oysters.
The pretty seaside town of Cancale was rammed with day-trippers looking for a zinc-hit when we visited in August. But an hour lost to the fickle god of parking disappeared in the vision of a round of 12 oysters. We were out of season for the famed belons, (European flat oysters) which of course merits a return trip.
The best (and cheapest, no-nonsense) place to sample the sheer variety of oysters in Cancale however, is not the seaside restaurants but the marché aux huîtres, a clutch of stalls manned by robust women who practically shucked with their eyes shut. Grab a paper oyster plate, a chunk of lemon, and slurp until you can no more, whereupon you chuck the shells back into the sea, a valuable food source for marine life.
It’s time that we too, along with the French (now now), got down and dirty to some shucking and schlurping. By eating Cornish oysters, you are essentially harking back to working class roots and supporting the livelihood of fishermen on the Fal as well as the Fal itself. Watch out for October’s Oyster Festival in Falmouth as well as the traditional Oyster Gatherings at the beginning and end of the native season. For more information go to cornishnativeoysters.co.uk.