Food of My Childhood
I go back to one of my childhood holiday hotspots to find out more about oysters and Mersea Island's farming heritage.
Brace yourself for a massive slap of middleclassdom, but for me, the food of my childhood is oysters. Yup. The snooty globs of snot in a shell. Them's the ones. My childhood food. Don't worry though, there's more to this story than you might think.
For several years, my mother, grandmother, sister and I would holiday on the island of Mersea just off of the coast of Essex. We would go here because it gave Grandma a chance to visit her cousin who now lived on the island, and because the small secluded nature of the place meant it was quite safe for my sister and I to freely roam the campsite and island as we wished, in some sort of Enid Blyton style bliss. We would stay at one of the island's static caravan and camp sites (paid for in part with Daily Mail vouchers), and spend our days paddling at the beach, crabbing in the harbour, watching cars get stuck on the strood, or just generally hiking around enjoying the sun and sea air. The bliss of these trips was added to by the food on offer on the island. Food that has historic roots, and is now under threat?
Oysters have been farmed on Mersea Island even before the Romans were pottering about the UK scattering the land with arrow heads and broken pots, when oysters were gathered from the shores and enjoyed by locals. When the Romans finally burst (uninvited) onto the scene with their sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation, and sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, they also brought with them an improved oyster farming technique. The Romans were already cultivating oysters by moving them from the sea and replanting them in Lake Lucrine to allow them to finish growing, and supposedly to improve them. They were highly prized and said to be worth their weight in gold. Upon arriving here in the UK the toga louts must have been overjoyed finding plenty of wild oysters, which they said to be the best. A further story about the Romans' and their fascination with out oysters is that they reportedly transported some back to Italy, over the Alps on donkeys. Which seems wholly unlikely as I've never been able to get a sausage roll back from Greggs without eating it, so the concept of carrying some food that far without gobbling it down is completely foreign to me.
It was under the Roman occupation of the British Isles that Mersea Island started to be seen as a holiday destination, with residents of Colchester coming to the island to bathe in the waters of the North Sea. As the years passed the island successfully moved with the times, with the Anglo Saxons constructing churches as as well as setting up fish traps and weirs. The original Strood causeway to the island was constructed by the Saxons with some of the wooden piles discovered dating back to somewhere between 684 and 702AD. Throughout this time, fishing retained its relevance on the island with more fish weirs being established as time passed. As the 16th and 17th centuries rolled by, and Dutch and French settlers arrived, fishing was still the main income for many on the island, but to supplement this, many locals turned to smuggling, which carried on right through until the 19th century.
War brought more change to the island, with Mersea giving 320 soldiers to the efforts of the First World War, 50 of which lost their lives. In the Second World War, Mersea played far more of a critical role.
Worried that the island was a possible point of invasion the beaches were mined, and fortified with pill boxes, searchlights, and machine gun fortifications pock marking the beaches. Their remains can still be seen to this day, with one old pillbox now serving as a cafe. The island was also home to a fake RAF base. A series of fake runway lights were laid out in a field, and were accompanied by a small bunker. This meant that at night the lights could be lit by and then the fake base operator could hide in the bunker as the Luftwaffe bombed what was little more than a set of fairy lights and some grass. Equally with Essex's high number of US and British airforce bases, the island was on a key flightpath for both our planes, and those of the Germans, so much so that the sands beyond Mersea are littered with downed planes.
Post war the island soldiered on, battling through some wild weather that hit the oyster stocks around the island badly, almost crippling the oyster farming industry there. The 80's weren't kind to the oyster industry either, with Bonamia spreading up from Cornwall. Bonamia being a parasitic infection that results in a lethal infection in shellfish, including oysters. But still, the oystermen of the island persevered and the oyster stocks started to regrow. However, climate change is having an impact on the oysters around Mersea. Rising sea temperatures mean that the aquaculture is no longer in favour of the Mersea Island native oysters, and now favours the higher temperature spawning Japanese Gigas.
However, all is not lost. A new project set up by a whole bevy of groups including the University of Essex, ZSL, and Essex Wildlife Trust is looking to protect this historic farming practice. The process involved is looking at rejuvenating the seabed and laying down an appropriate substrate for the oysters to grow on. Typically if un-fished the oyster will grown on its predecessors, using their shells as a base, but when fished you take away that base and oysters struggle to germinate. So the experiment that is underway is trialling a series of new substrates, such as old oyster shells, recycled back into the process. A nice form of recycling if you will.
Onto matters more edible now, and the two types of oysters. Mersea is known for its Native Oysters, that are only served in months ending with the letter R, this means they aren't farmed in the summer when they are germinating. The other species of oyster found in the Blackwater Estuary is the Japanese Gigas, an invader from the Pacific. So what are the differences?
Well the Rock or Gigas Oyster has a larger, more wrinkly shell, where as the Native has smaller, more rounded shell. Inside there isn't a great deal of difference by appearance. The real difference is in the taste and texture. The native is meatier and less salty than the rock oyster. Equally it's limited availability makes it that little bit more special. The native is also a lot denser and meatier providing a better oyster experience in my opinion.
Half a dozen of Mersea's finest. No tabasco or that nonsense. Just a bit of the onions and away we go.
So, what are oysters like to eat? Salty. The initial taste is hugely salty, but then as that dissipates it has a gentle seafoody meaty taste. It does pair well with a squirt of lemon, or the bitterness of the onions, but tabasco? For me it's a little too much. The heat and punch of the sauce dominates the otherwise delicate flavour of the oysters, and then what's the point in eating them if you can't really taste them?
So there we have it, a hugely convoluted story about a small, mostly insignificant island, and some bivalves. All for what? Well, there'll be a restaurant review for The Mersea Island Oyster Bar up on here soon if you really want to see what seafood delights Mersea has to offer (hint; a lot of good ones), and a video of my adventure, because who doesn't love a low budget version of Coast/Countryfile/The One Show hosted by a man with bad hair and a moustache? All that is coming soon, but in the meantime, have I converted you to oysters? Will you give them a go? Let me know in the comments if you are going to try them? Or if you have, what you thought!