“All oysters are not created equal,” says Tim Marshall. We are standing ankle-deep in mud on the flats of the Camel Estuary in north Cornwall, clouds hanging low over the gunmetal water, where the Marshall family has farmed oysters for four generations.
Previously I had given more thought to the taste of oysters than how they are produced, but here they are in front of me, growing in containers on a line of trestles set low on the shore to maximise their feeding time under water. Oysters eat by filtering nutrients through their gills and their health corresponds to that of the water passing through them. “Good water: good oysters. Bad water: bad oysters. Bad oysters: bad tummy,” says Marshall, 54, in a thick West Country drawl.
On a clear day the view from this oyster farm, looking out to Padstow, a fishing port on the west side of the estuary, meets just about everyone’s definition of picturesque. But today it is uninviting: seaweed cushions the muddy, rock-strewn shore where the wind is brisk and the trees are black and bare. It seems an unusual place for a weekend break but I am here on an “oyster-hunting tour”, recently launched by Bedruthan Hotel & Spa and aimed at giving the inside story on farming, shucking and cooking with oysters.
“In midwinter, the work is cold and back-breaking,” says Marshall, before explaining the two-year cycle from seed to edible oyster. “No matter what the season, young oysters have to be carefully nurtured. It is low-capital, high-labour work but I love it.”
We walk along the beach to Marshall’s farm, where he cleans and sorts the harvested oysters. There are two basic types in the UK: the native oyster, and the more widespread Pacific oyster, shaped like a teardrop, which Marshall grows here – 1m of them, in fact, though only 600,000 to 800,000 will be good enough to sell.
Marshall picks up a shucking knife and a towel to hold an oyster in place so that the liquor – “the tastiest bit” – doesn’t tip out. He holds the blade against the hinge, seeming not to force open the shells but to massage the muscle that is keeping them closed. Wiggling the blade gently, the muscle simply relaxes and the shells separate.
“Don’t pay for an oyster to then swallow it whole – chew the things!” Marshall instructs our group. I take an oyster, shuck and slurp it, remembering to chew before swallowing, and find myself marvelling at the speed with which a creature can be transported from ocean to stomach, dispatched from the dark and the deep to, well, the dark and the deep.
With us is Darren Millgate, a chef at the Bedruthan Hotel. He knocks up a delicious wild garlic (foraged locally, of course), hazelnut and rapeseed oil pesto to go with the oysters. Devotees prefer to eat oysters raw, which, make no mistake about it, means live, but they can be also stewed, fried and pickled.
We take a bag back to the hotel – some to serve as tempura with pickled rock samphire (also foraged, this time from nearby cliffs) and others to poach in celery soup. I could have eaten more, though perhaps not as many as the 19th-century Englishman who consumed 12 dozen, washed down by 12 glasses of champagne, while the clock was striking 12, according to MFK Fisher in her 1941 classic Consider the Oyster.
Many people believe that oysters have aphrodisiac powers, I say to the chef. Is there any truth to it? “Well,” he replies, “eat a dozen more and you’ll see.”
John Sunyer was a guest of Bedruthan Hotel & Spa (www.bedruthan.com), which offers a two-night ‘oyster-hunting break’ for £275 per person