The English coast, washed by cold waters and dotted with shallow bays and inlets, is ideal for oyster beds, both natural and farmed. While today, eating oysters is a relatively expensive seasonal treat, in the 19th century they were so plentiful and cheap that they were the food of the poor. Eventually the English turned their noses up at the aphrodisiac bivalve and lost the taste for them. In fact, in modern times, the bulk of the native oyster harvest was shipped to France.
According to Natural England, in 1864 more than 700 million oysters were eaten in London. One hundred years later, over-fishing had reduced the total throughout the country to only 3 million.
Nowadays, oysters are becoming plentiful once again. In the autumn and winter months, native oysters are widely available - though still an expensive delicacy. In some parts of England where non-native Pacific and rock oysters are farmed, they're available throughout the year.
Did I say throughout the year? What about only eating oysters in months with an "R" in their name? For years people have believed oysters are unsafe to eat in May, June, July and August. But that's actually a myth that arose from the fact that those months are the hottest in the Northern Hemisphere and, thus, the months in which oysters are most likely to spoil. Nowadays, raw oysters that are properly kept and served promptly on ice can be eaten throughout the year.
But there is another reason not to eat England's native oysters May through August - it's against the law. Native oysters, which take about 5 years to mature, spawn during those non "R" months and they're protected by an act of Parliament during the spawning season. If the weather has been warm, you might want to stick to the farmed, non-native species in April (when the natives may have started to spawn) and September (when the spawning season may not be quite finished. When they are spawning, native oysters are milky and not very nice.
Where to Eat Great English Oysters
- Whitby on the East Coast of Yorkshire is a pretty seaside town with several good restaurants. The ruined Abbey on a hill above the town is where Count Dracula came ashore to England in Bram Stoker's novel. It was also where the Synod of Whitby between the Roman and Celtic Churches, in 664, determined the dates of Easter. The cold waters of the North Sea make for good oysters where there are shallow bays. Eat them in season in Whitby at:
- Thornham The Village of Thornham near the North Norfolk Coast was once the haunt of smugglers. Now the creeks that run through the salt marshes from the Northsea are covered with rock oysters on trestles, reaching maturity in the salty tidal waters. You can try them at:
- Orford. Visit this village beside the Suffolk Heritage Coast for a chance at one of the limited number of tickets to visit the National Trust's Orford Ness National Nature Reserve. The longest shingle spit in Europe with, according to the NT, 15% of the world's reserve of vegetated shingle, this rare and fragile landscape can only be reached by NT ferry and explored along designated paths. Its secret is more than a hidden natural world. During the Cold War it was a secret military test area and the remains of that use remain scattered across the beach. Stop in at Orford Castle,a complete and unusual medieval castle built by Henry II. After exploring, eat oysters at:
The Butley Orford Oysterage, part of a company that has been farming oysters on Butley Creek for more than 60 years.
- Mersea Island off the Essex coast near Colchester is reached by an ancient causeway across saltmarshes that floods everyday at high tide. The island is surrounded by oyster rich water and has provided the famous Colchester oysters since Roman times (the the ancient causeway). Oysters from the River Blackwater, to the west of the Island, have been cultivated and harvested by the Haward family for seven generations, since the mid 18th century.They are a mixture of natives (in season) and wild rock oysters available year round. The River Colne and the Colne Estuary, to the east of the island, is the source of native and rock oysters from The Colchester Oyster Fishery, who hold the current lease on beds that were granted to the local authorities in 1189 by King Richard I, The Lionheart. Eat Colchester oysters at:
- The Company Shed, run by the Hawards as a combination seafood shop and eatery, this is a plain little place that regularly receives stellar praise from all the major food critics. Bring your own bread and wine.
- The Coast Inn, a Mersea riverside restaurant and bar on the Blackwater that specialises in local seafood and mussels. Check first because oysters may not be on the menu when you visit.
- The Mistley Thorn, a hotel and restaurant in Mistley on the River Stour, about 10 miles northeast of Colchester. The American-born chef serves oysters year round and Colchester natives in season.
- Whitstable in Kent is another of England's ancient oyster fisheries. Oyster shells found in the Coliseum in Rome have been identified as being from Whitstable. Today, the name "Whitstable native oysters" is protected by an EU geographical designation. Close to Canterbury and within easily reached on a day trip from London, Whitstable has a salty charm and some 17th and 18th century streets worth exploring. The town has an oyster festival,but don't expect to eat any natives then - they hold it in July when the oyster season is over and the fishermen have time to celebrate. Eat oysters at:
- The Royal Naval Oyster Stores, owned by the Whitstable Oyster Company who revived the town's fishery after World War II.
- The Sportsman, a Michelin-starred gastropub in Seasalter, about a mile from Whitstable. But don't expect any oyster here until late October or early November. The chef won't serve any until the natives are truly in their prime.
- Wheelers Oyster Bar, a tiny, pink fronted restaurant that harks back to the town's Victorian heyday. Everything is right off the boat. Cash only and BYOB.
- The Crab and Winkle, a restaurant and fishmarket overlooking the working fishing harbor.
- Falmouth, on the south Cornish coast, hosts the 4-day Falmouth Oyster Festival every October, a celebration of Cornish seafood and local oysters that kicks off the start of the oyster fishing season there. If you are a real oyster lover, there is no better way to eat oysters than freshly shucked, from a stall by the sea. But, if you'd rather sit at a table, try some of these local restaurants: