Colchester’s Mersea Island spans five miles by two of tidal marsh. There’s a fledgling vineyard, pub, seven B&B bedrooms and a bitumen-spread shack called, no-nonsense, the Company Shed. It’s beloved by both locals, and restaurant critics jaded by Michelin’s frippery. Under fluorescent strips, tanks of crustaceans rowdily gurgle, tended by seventh generation snowy-bearded oyster-man, Richard Haward. His family have been excavating craggy bivalves from local silt and salt since 1792. Haward’s cause today is the rebuilding of stocks of delicate tasting, and delicate of life, native oysters. I venture on a sharp, low sunlit morning to taste Talisker Scotch distilled beside the shore of Scotland’s Isle of Skye beside this shore, with a menu by guest chef, Valentine Warner.
‘There’s a saying about native oysters,’ says warmly clad Haward, his breath condensing. ‘The first thing they think about doing is dying!’ He allows us a pause for reaction, then elaborates: ‘Gigas or rock oysters were introduced to Britain in the 1960s by the government to boost the oyster industry. They became so successful that many people don’t know what natives are anymore. 150 years-ago, natives were the food of the people: the cheap filling in a steak and oyster pie.’ I bring to mind the image of the lighthouse building by King’s Cross, potentially once an outlet of cheap native oysters for the masses. Meanwhile, Haward removes a circular native from a purifying tank. ‘There’s a definite terroir (or meroir) we find,’ he says, with a defiantly vivid local accent. ‘This shallow creek, to the west of Mersea Island, is very salty.’
Our press pack slips several said salty specimens. One writer insists on liberally dousing slightly verdigris fringed, vividly mineral oyster flesh with harsh red Tabasco. ‘I don’t believe in messing them up,’ Haward winces, then turns to me. ‘I once upset a Tabasco salesman.’ But what about lemon juice, I ask? ‘I will permit it,’ he yields.
We segue to a long table bound in plastic tablecloth marked with unidentifiable fish, some blurred to give an effect of distance. Fighting the aromas of Warner’s butch cooking, whisky expert, Doctor Nick Morgan of Diageo conducts a spirited tasting. Like Haward’s strict but acceptable attitude regarding oysters and citrus, this dram must never be ‘shocked’ with ice, he cautions, echoing the words of Talisker’s distillery manager and smallholder, Mark Lochhead.
Despite being three quarters as smoky as medicinal Islay single malts, like Lagavulin, Talisker, which comes from a distillery founded in 1860, works well with oysters, explains Morgan. Indeed, oyster beds (whose oysters are sold in Waitrose) are located close to the distillery. With a nod towards local sourcing, a wee dram straight in the bowl of the shell heightens the oyster’s natural sweetness.
Of the various pours, the most popular 10 year-old expression smells like the shores by Talisker when the tide has left, claims Morgan, while the 18 year-old is zesty, complex, but still possessive of an aftertaste which reminds the drinker ‘where it came from’. Meanwhile the 57′ North, named after the distillery’s high latitude and sturdy alcohol by volume is sweeter and vanillin. ‘But beware of getting cauterized on the nose!’ advises Morgan, coming to life. The tasting culminates with the distiller’s edition, matured for a decade in traditional bourbon casks, then sherry casks. It is reminiscent of ‘big green martini olives’ according to another journalist.
Warner, visible in the Shed’s rudimentary open kitchen, sends his first dish out: scallop cooked in shell with salted pork fat and hazelnuts in butter, and then crab gratin baked with 10 year-old Talisker. Roe deer follows. According to the waitress, it is the first time in the Company Shed’s history that their plates have featured so much meat. A cameraman, recently returned from covering the Talisker-sponsored attempt to row across the Atlantic in 28 days, hits his head on polystyrene roof tiles while trying to pull focus on the feast. Many topics of conversation ensue, including Haward’s concerns over the fact oysters in the Solent are becoming one gender only and not spawning – allegedly because of the amount of hormones going through the sewerage system.
Before he sets course for London, I ask Warner what stick figures, which typically illustrate his books, he would choose to depict today’s lunch. ‘They’d be digging and loading rifles’ he says, slightly darkly.
After lunch, and by now a little wobbly with whisky, we head to the thankfully calm sea. One of Haward’s four children, Bran, skippers us in a seat-less shallow craft to a larger vessel. The wheelhouse features a curled pipefish mascot. Bran anchors the vessel and begins to fish. I’m intrigued by the fact that the oysters aren’t grown in cages. ‘I don’t get the point’ says Haward. We recover a haul of irregularly sized oysters and tiny translucent crabs and scrabbling shrimps. Younger oysters are returned to the cool water, while a slipper-sized, five year-old ‘pied de cheval’ is celebrated. ‘Sometimes we’ll sell 200 at Borough Market’ says Haward. ‘Someone in a group always asks for the biggest – quite a mouthful – but can’t back down.’
By now our group, unused to the strife of the fisherman’s life (but very used to the richness of their catch) relishes the return to the Shed for a reviving snifter…